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Russia's PM linked to Scientologists

RUSSIA'S youthful, inexperienced and - until last week - almost unheard of prime minister-designate was yesterday grappling with potentially damaging allegations linking him with the Church of Scientology.

Just over a week after being yanked out of obscurity by Boris Yeltsin, Sergei Kiriyenko, 35, hit his first unexpected skid patch after a German newspaper, Berliner Zeitung, reported that he had attended a one-week Scientology course in Nizhny Novgorod when he was head of a bank three years ago.

The teachings of L Ron Hubbard are regarded with profound suspicion by Russian officialdom, particularly by the powerful Russian Orthodox church. The same views are likely to be shared by many of the parliamentarians due to vote on Friday over whether to confirm Mr Kiriyenko's nomination.

Yesterday, Mr Yeltsin sought to dampen the protests over his choice of prime minister by inviting the two speakers of parliament and Mr Kiriyenko himself to talks at his residence outside Moscow later today. The invitation appeared to work: soon afterwards, deputies from the State Duma, or lower house, dropped demands for Mr Kiriyenko's nomination to be suspended.

The minister yesterday tried to brush off the Berliner Zeitung report, which claimed he arranged for other bankers to attend similar seminars. He was reported to have declared that he appreciated the "simplicity and clarity" of Hubbard's teachings. Later, the paper said, he lost interest in Scientology.

Under quizzing from reporters, Mr Kiriyenko said yesterday it was the "best April Fool's joke yet". But there was no outright denial.

Although Scientology has a sizeable following among Russians, the ruling elite is unlikely to take kindly to the idea of being led by an official who has any links to it. Last year, hostilities erupted in a landmark court case over an Orthodox church leaflet which warned of the dangers of "totalitarian sects", naming, among others, the Scientologists, the Moonies and the White Brotherhood.

For all its distaste, Russia has not cracked down as hard as Germany which, in spite of outcries from human rights groups, US politicians and Hollywood heavyweights including Dustin Hoffman and Oliver Stone, passed tough laws controlling the Scientologists. But they were undoubtedly among the sects targeted by a law signed last year by Mr Yeltsin which restricted the rights of "non-Russian" religions.