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Yeltsin's man tries to make a good fist of it

Phil Reeves in Moscow sees the prime minister-designate sparring with destiny
RUSSIA'S prime minister-designate, Sergei Kiriyenko, 35, is trying a new way to convince a sceptical nation he is the man for the job. Sporting red boxing gloves, the slightly built politician has appeared on television whacking a punch-bag.

The message is clear: he may look like an owlish and studious provincial ex-banker whose nickname among his colleagues is the "little computer", but he is also a "muzhik", a red-blooded Russian male who has the muscle to get things done.

His performance, on the popular political programme "Itogi", belongs to a long tradition in which Russia's leaders have tried to curry admiration by displaying their sporting prowess. Boris Yeltsin was famously fond of demonstrating his volleyball and tennis skills, until his health intervened. The ambitious mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov, at 61 still relishes appearances on the football field. The sacked prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, now vying for the presidency, has tried to beef up his image by jet-skiing. The equally corpulent Communist leader, Gennady Zyuganov, claims his interests include tennis and volleyball. Mr Kiriyenko's posturing is the latest manoeuvre in the Kremlin campaign to try to ensure he is confirmed in his job after being nominated - to universal astonishment - by Boris Yeltsin on 23 March.

This week may prove critical. Mr Yeltsin is due today to hold round- table talks with the leaders of parliament, party factions, trade unions and the regions in the hope of persuading them to drop their opposition to Mr Kiriyenko.

The President has said he will listen to their suggestions for ministerial appointments and policy, both of which are in disarray after his dismissal of the government.

That he is willing to meet them for discussions at all is uncharacteristically conciliatory, but Mr Yeltsin's aides emphasise he is not prepared to compromise over the nomination and will resubmit Mr Kiriyenko's name if it is rejected. It has yet to be decided exactly when the State Duma (lower house) will vote, but it could be on Friday.

Under the constitution, parliament will automatically be dissolved if it rejects Mr Kiriyenko three times. Whether either side is interested in pushing the stand-off to that is doubtful. The Communists, the largest party in the Duma, have said they are willing to risk an early poll to block Mr Kiriyenko, whom they view as young and inexperienced. But they have a record of caving in.

On Saturday a promise was extracted from the new premier-to-be to pay off billions of roubles owed to public-sector workers. However, Russia's unpaid workers - many of whom are expected to join union-led strikes and marches on Thursday - have seen too many such pledges made and broken.

They will attach as much credibility to Mr Kiriyenko's words as they will to his attempts to persuade them he is the hard man of the boxing ring.