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Russia: Duma Relents; Approves Kiriyenko

  • Floriana Fossato

Moscow, 24 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- "He will be confirmed," the daily "Kommersant" wrote in its front page article, on sale at kiosks in Moscow this morning. No doubt about the identity of the article's hero - the boyish face of Sergei Kiriyenko stared sternly at readers from the center of the page. Kiriyenko, President Boris Yeltsin's nominee for the post of prime minister, was confirmed today by a reluctant lower house of parliament after being rejected twice.

This morning deputies decided, as expected, to cast their ballots in private on special ballots in an election-style polling booth. This slower method allowed Communist deputies to defect from the Party line against Kiriyenko, agreed by Party leaders, and to vote without other seeing, even furtively.

Kiriyenko needed 226 votes to be approved by the 450-member State Duma. The balloting commission announced, after counting the ballots, that 251 deputies had backed Kiriyenko - 25 deputies voted against.

Most Duma factions had announced before the vote that they would support Kiriyenko, in order to "save the Duma" from dissolution.

The entire voting procedure was barred to cameras and observers.

Only members of the Yabloko faction of economist Grigory Yavlinsky kept their word and refused - as a bloc - to vote. Most other factions were split.

The headline of another Moscow daily, "Russky Telegraf," reflected the same tone as "Kommersant." "Today Kiriyenko will loose the title of acting prime minister," the newspaper read in its article on the last developments in the political standoff that has frozen Russia's political life since 23 March. On that date, Yeltsin abruptly and unceremoniously sacked long-standing former prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and the entire government, temporarily nominating Kiriyenko as the cabinet's care-taker.

The outcome of today's vote is seen in Moscow as a clear victory for Yeltsin, who had refused to compromise with the Communist opposition and offer any other candidate.

The political crisis, dragging on for more than a month, with the Communist and nationalist-dominated Duma rejecting Kiriyenko twice before, has shown a display of poor political skills and economic irresponsibility from Communist leaders and influential businessmen.

Most observers in the Duma corridors agreed today that the Communist party and its allies once more displayed the divisions within their ranks, rather than the strength of their political will.

Having waited until the very last moment before realizing Yeltsin was unalterably resolved to stick with Kiriyenko and to use the constitutional power to dissolve the Duma, Communist leaders seem to have lost their opportunity to engage in realistic consultations with the Kremlin on the formation of the new government.

If the Duma had again rejected Kiriyenko today, Yeltsin would have had, nonetheless, had the constitutional right to appoint the young technocrat to the post of prime minister. He would have, then, the right to dissolve the Duma and call early elections. Such a situation would effectively have paralyzed the adoption of much-needed economic legislation for most of 1998.

The more pragmatic upper house of Russia's parliament, the Federation Council, had urged the Duma to confirm Kiriyenko, and avoid plunging Russia into new political and economic uncertainty. Kiriyenko, who has spent most of the last month in consultations with Duma factions, urged deputies in his last address to them this morning to join him in "constructive, joint work" with the government.

Kiriyenko has said that he will announce the composition of the new government within a week. Observers say that, after the Duma confirmation debate dragged out so long, and after Yeltsin repeatedly refused to agree to a coalition government, it is unlikely that Kiriyenko will invite many opposition representatives to join the new cabinet. If communist representatives are seen as having few chances to join the next government, the introduction of several new figures cannot, however, be ruled out.

The leader of the Our Home is Russia faction, Aleksandr Shokhin, said after casting his ballot that he will meet Kiriyenko today to discuss cabinet posts. Our Home is Russia is the movement led by former prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, who yesterday said the movement's 67-member parliamentary faction would vote in support of Kiriyenko.

Shokhin said that, in his opinion, "at least two representatives" of Our Home is Russia will join the government and "one will likely have in the range of deputy prime minister."

Russian reports over the last week have noted that Shokhin, a former economics minister, was hoping to replace acting First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov in a new government. It is unclear which cabinet post he could receive, but most analysts agree that Nemtsov, who originally brought Kiriyenko to Moscow, should preserve a prominent post in the new government.

In an interview with the daily "Nezavisimaya Gazeta," published today, Kiriyenko said that "if the Duma confirms me in today's vote, the government will owe nothing to anybody for its formation. And personally, I will owe nothing to anyone, except the President."

"Nezavisimaya Gazeta," in the last weeks, has unleashed a strong campaign against Kiriyenko - apparently reflecting the view of Boris Berezovsky, the business magnates who controls the paper. Therefore, it is interesting that, on the eve of the vote, when it was almost certain that the result would be in Kiriyenko's favor, the paper gave Kiriyenko the opportunity to relate a recent event. The paper quoted Kiriyenko as saying that, on April 17, "20 minutes before the second Duma vote," unspecified people told him "now you go out on the tribune, you tell deputies that (former First Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly) Chubais will never become CEO of Unified Energy Systems, and that Nemtsov will not be a member of the next cabinet, and you are sure to get 230 votes today."

Kiriyenko, obviously, did not disclose the name of the people who suggested the move, but some observers say it could well be a person connected with Berezovsky. Yeltsin last week was reported to have warned the magnate that he should limit his intrigues, or leave the country. Berezovsky has denied the reports. However, Kremlin officials said, in private conversations, that they believed unnamed "business interests" had influenced some deputies during the second round of vote, resulting in Kiriyenko's rejections. These same "business interests" were said to have spread rumors in the Duma that Yeltsin was ready to agree to a different candidate.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta argued this week that the appointment of Kiriyenko might be a "Pyrrhic victory" for Yeltsin, if it provokes unnamed "oligarchs" to become the President's opponents. The newspaper also claimed that events, since Yeltsin sacked Chernomyrdin's government, have not resulted in the realization of Yeltsin's hope of obtaining an "apolitical government of technocrats" that would better manage the economy.

In a curious pre-vote event, conflicting reports appeared today in Russian media controlled by business interests seen as close to Berezovsky, about a possible appointment of Chubais at Unified Energy Systems. Radio Ekho Moskvy first, and the commercial NTV television station immediately afterwards, quoted an unnamed source close to the Presidential administration as saying that Yeltsin had assented to the appointment. Both the radio and the television are part of NTV Media Holding, a powerful media conglomerate controlled by Vladimir Gusinsky.

The presidential press service immediately moved to "categorically deny" the rumor and Chubais's spokesman Andrei Trapeznikov said the report were "political disinformation," designed to spoil the Duma vote, and deter deputies from voting for Kiriyenko.

Chubais' appointment, if confirmed by a meeting of the board of directors of UES this month, would be welcomed by market and investors, but would likely be bad news for some influential businessmen and politicians.

In contrast, media financed by Oneksimbank, seen as close to Chubais and the so-called "reformist camp," have advocated appointing Chubais to head the electricity-generating monopoly, and putting Nemtsov in charge of supervising natural monopolies in the energy and transportation sectors.

Most observers agree Chubais' appointment would keep Russia's second-largest company and most-traded stock in the hands of the reformist camp, thus giving it the possibility of controlling one of the possible strategic sources of financing for the 2000 presidential election.

It is viewed as probable that the attempt of Communist leaders to try and negotiate Chubais' possible appointment with Yeltsin, as one of the main conditions for a positive vote on Kiriyenko, was a mistake - because, in the President's eyes, it may have joined the opposition to the "oligarchs."

As one Kremlin official (anonymous) said recently, "the point is that Yeltsin is more and more convinced that he (Kiriyenko) is a young reformer. After sacking Chernomyrdin, and saying he wanted young people in government to increase the pace of reform, the President is trying to stick exactly to what he said."

More skeptical people already ask how long Yeltsin will continue support of young reformers. He has provided ample proof in the past that his decisions can take the most unpredictable turns. Also, Yeltsin's support will certainly not make it easier for Kiriyenko to work with a Duma that obviously voted for him principally to maintain its own existence.