Yeltsin tells Duma to back his protege

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AILING, erratic and utterly unpredictable he may be. But Boris Yeltsin has spoken. Sergei Kiriyenko, the 35-year-old political neophyte he plucked from obscurity on Monday will be his next Prime Minister. Let the Duma, the Russian parliament, disobey him at its peril.

An extraordinary week, even by Mr Yeltsin's ability to lurch from dolt to tsar in a matter of hours, ended yesterday with the President imperiously naming Mr Kiriyenko as his choice to head the successor government to the one he sacked in its entirety just four days earlier.

"I have already warned Kiriyenko there is no time to warm up," Mr Yeltsin declared in a radio address, sounding as strong as he looked feeble in his informal summit on Thursday with Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany and the French President, Jacques Chirac. Then he appeared on television, turning his fire on the Duma with which he has quarrelled so often in the past. Let's have no messing about, the President warned, the bespectacled Mr Kiriyenko sitting timidly, half-smiling, across the table. "I will not let anyone get away with it, it is useless even trying."

If the Duma did not heed this ukaz, he threatened, it would be dissolved, a year ahead of schedule and new elections held. But the signs were last night that it would comply, as the chamber's Communist speaker Gennady Seleznyov hinted that Mr Kiriyenko could be approved at the first time of asking, perhaps as soon as the end of next week.

The reaction of Russian and international markets was muted; a measure of how, despite Mr Yeltsin's pyrotechnics, both his policies, in so far as they exist, and the country's prospects, are deemed essentially the same as a week ago.

Mr Kiriyenko, a protege of the former deputy Prime Minister, Boris Nemtsov, has a reformist pedigree. But whether he will be any more successful than his ousted predecessor, Viktor Chernomyrdin, in dealing with the country's daunting economic problems remains to be seen. One hopeful development was passage of Mr Yeltsin's 1998 budget, designed to produce growth of at least 2 per cent, and finally ending the downward spiral since market reforms began in 1992.

But the main unanswered question concerns the 2000 presidential election. Mr Chernomyrdin has almost certainly been taken out of contention. The rest is a mystery, above all whether Mr Yeltsin himself, defying health, actuarial charts and the constitution, has deliberately strengthened his position ahead of a bid for a third term.