Reluctant Duma votes in new prime minister

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The Independent Online
VLADIMIR PUTIN, the former head of Russia's security services, was confirmed yesterday as Boris Yeltsin's latest Prime Minister by a disgruntled parliament that decided to save battling with the Kremlin for another day.

The fifth premier in only 17 months, he now has the awesome task of trying to hang on to his job at a time when Russia faces a looming election battle, a new conflict in the Caucasus, the endless struggle against corruption, economic strife and reduced global stature.

Mr Putin, 46, was approved in his new post with 233 votes to 84 by the State Duma, the lower house, after a brief, unemotional speech in which he stressed law and order, and the need to revive the military above market reforms. He needed a straight majority of 226 from the 450-seat chamber.

Mr Yeltsin chose Mr Putin, who was head of the Federal Security Service, as his new premier last week after throwing out Sergei Stepashin three months into his tenure. To widespread surprise, the President also categorically identified Mr Putin as the man he would like to succeed him in next summer's elections.

He was an unexpected choice, not least because he is an uncharismatic figure who spent much of his career behind the scenes in the Soviet KGB, for whom he spied in East Germany. After the end of the USSR, he moved to the St Petersburg city administration, and finally to the Kremlin. He is, however, seen as particularly loyal to the Kremlin inner circle - the so-called family, including Mr Yeltsin's younger daughter, Tatyana Dyachenko.

His appointment is widely viewed in Moscow as an attempt by the Kremlin to ensure that Mr Yeltsin's successor will protect the President and his circle of supporters, who are believed to be seeking immunity from prosecution. Allegations of corruption have long been levelled at senior figures behind Mr Yeltsin.

But it also appears to have been part of an attempt by the President to counter the mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, whose "Fatherland" organisation has formed a powerful alliance with regional governors.

The mayor's coalition, which is tipped to sweep December's parliamentary elections, may become even stronger. The popular former premier and former foreign minister, Yevgeny Primakov, is expected to reveal today whether he has also signed up to the new bloc.

Among those watching warily are the Communist Party and their allies, who hold the largest number of seats in the Duma, but have suffered several significant setbacks, including the desertion of at least half of one of their traditional partners, the agrarian groups.

Mr Putin's speech yesterday was tailored to parliament's generally anti- Western and anti-Kremlin mood, which has been further deepened by corruption scandals, the Yugoslav war and incursions by Islamic Wahhabi and Chechen fighters into Dagestan.

He laid little emphasis on market economics, beyond pledging to "continue reforms". "The reforms aren't a goal by themselves. They must improve peoples' condition," he said.

He sought to strike a particularly tough note over Dagestan, where Russian helicopters and heavy artillery continued attacking Islamic separatists holding at least five mountain villages. "Russia's territorial integrity cannot be an object of discussion, much less bargaining or blackmail," he said.