Yeltsin choice for PM enters political fray

THE 35-year-old neophyte whom Boris Yeltsin has hurriedly thrust on to the world stage as his chosen prime minister enjoys dangerous combat sports, but today's bout is likely to be an exception. The odds are that Sergei Kiriyenko will get a bloody nose in the first round of his confirmation battle with Russia's parliament.

As the bespectacled former provincial banker enters the fray, brandishing a conciliatory economic programme which he hopes will change its mind, he will be confronted by an indignant parliament which - in large part - views him as a hopelessly inexperienced lightweight.

At the ringside, eagerly cheering him on, sits a president in a fix: Boris Yeltsin, whose sacking of Viktor Chernomyrdin and his entire government last month has plunged Russia into political mayhem at a time when its underlying economic problems are as acute as ever.

A reminder of that came yesterday when hundreds of thousands of Russians took part in demonstrations in yet another protest over late pay and pensions. As the red flags fluttered against grey spring skies, there were plenty of calls for Mr Yeltsin's resignation.

Supporters of Mr Kiriyenko estimate that he will be about 75 ballots short of the 226 votes he needs to be confirmed by the State Duma (lower house). He will make a speech, which will support reforms but with a gentler touch, with more support for the poor and industry.

If this fails to persuade the house, Mr Yeltsin - who cannot appoint a cabinet until he has a prime minister - is expected to resubmit his nomination immediately. If this is rejected three times, the Communist- dominated legislature must be dissolved and an election held. However, few expect the issue to reach that point; it seems likely to be settled by a trade-off - the promise, perhaps, of cabinet jobs for the Communists.

No matter what the outcome, this political drama is one that has done no good to Mr Yeltsin. International confidence in Russia - never strong - has been further dented. Despite years of Western hype, the economy remains critical. True, there have been a few achievements: annual inflation is down to about 11 per cent , the rouble is stable, and there are symptoms of growth this year, albeit minimal. But the myriad woes that came with the transition to a market economy have been compounded by several unexpected blows, particularly falling oil prices and the Asian financial crisis. Russia is still in the doldrums; now was not the moment for another presidential display of the unpredictability and flamboyance which he so enjoys.

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