New PM short on substance

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The Independent Online
President Boris Yeltsin told the visiting German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, yesterday that the West could rest assured of Russia's determination to press on with reform despite Monday's replacement of the radical Prime Minister, Yegor Gaidar, with a more conservative former energy industry official. But doubts remained after the new Premier, Viktor Chernomyrdin, gave a lacklustre press conference in which he repeatedly stressed his commitment to renewing his country without giving much idea how he intended to do it.

'I stand for the course of reforms,' he declared. 'I have never given anyone reason to say the course of the reforms will be changed. I repeat again, I am for deepening reforms. There will probably be some fine-tuning but the basic line will be held.'

Pleading that it was his first day in the job, Mr Chernomyrdin was short on specifics, except to say that the state would continue to regulate energy prices, something which will disturb foreign investors who see the artificial depression of oil and gas costs as the cause of colossal waste.

Mr Chernomyrdin, 54, a former Communist apparatchik who has spent his entire career administering the oil and gas industry, said his main priority was to stop a fall in industrial production. Only from a basis of strong industry could agriculture and social welfare develop. These words should please Civic Union, the powerful industrialists' bloc in the Congress of People's Deputies which finally forced a reluctant Mr Yeltsin to abandon Mr Gaidar, his preferred candidate for Prime Minister.

Mr Gaidar said he could not work with Mr Chernomyrdin, but the position of his young team, who had earlier pledged to resign en masse if their leader went, was not clear yesterday.

Mr Chernomyrdin could hardly differ more in style from his energetic 36-year-old predecessor: heavy-set, middle-aged and plodding. Rather than a new centre of gravity, he seems more a vessel for the ambitions of others, notably Arkady Volsky and other leaders of Russia's industrial lobby.

He will also have to cope with an increasingly confident legislature. Having endorsed him as Premier, the Congress of People's Deputies - and the smaller standing parliament, the Supreme Soviet - will demand action to halt Russia's economic free-fall.

Mr Chernomyrdin's room for manoeuvre is slight: he must move fast if he is to reverse perhaps the key component of Mr Gaidar's reform: privatisation. Liberals were worried when the new Prime Minister told Congress on Monday that he was 'for a market but against a bazaar'. Asked to clarify, he said he stood for a free market but did not think it would do any good to 'turn our state into a lot of stalls'. This does not bode well for thousands of traders who have set up little kiosks across Moscow, selling imported goods at prices way beyond the pockets of average earners.