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Russia: Talks In Final Stages Ahead Of Key Duma Vote On Kiriyenko

Moscow, 22 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The agenda of today's session of Russia's State Duma did not include discussion of the procedure for Friday's vote on prime minister-designate Sergei Kiriyenko. However, RFE/RL correspondents in the Duma report that this issue was hotly debated by deputies in the corridors of the lower house of Russia's Parliament (Federal Assembly).

As last-hour negotiations between the Kremlin and Duma leaders continue ahead of the parliamentary vote, a growing number of deputies, including many Communists, is concerned that an open ballot Friday may mean that the legislature will vote itself out of a job, while failing to achieve the goal pursued by some faction leaders: to block - permanently - Kiriyenko's nomination.

Acting First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov yesterday said, "the prime minister will in any case be confirmed on Friday and the formation of the government will begin."

According to Article 111 of the Constitution, if the State Duma refuses three times to endorse the president's nominee, Yeltsin is empowered to do three things, in the following order: appoint a Prime Minister, dissolve the Duma and call early elections.

Kremlin sources, wishing to remain anonymous, say executive branch and Constitutional Court lawyers are debating, at the moment, something that Article 111 does not spell out, namely, how much time Yeltsin has to dissolve the Duma, following the appointment of a new prime minister.

The bigger risk for the Kremlin is that the dissolution of the present Duma is unlikely to produce a more cooperative legislation. However, according to the Kremlin insiders, if the Duma fails to confirm Kiriyenko in the third-round vote, Yeltsin is unlikely to ponder for a long time before dissolving the chamber. The Kremlin press service announced today that Yeltsin will meet the Chairman of each house of parliament for last-minute talks tomorrow.

Federation Council Chairman Yegor Stroyev said that he and Duma Chairman Gennady Seleznev will try to seek a compromise with Yeltsin to avoid the costly dissolution of parliament, which no party in the political stand-off really wants.

However, the Kremlin press-service repeated today that Yeltsin's support of Kiriyenko's candidacy "is final and cannot change," as a result of tomorrow's talks.

Meanwhile, the Federation Council today hosted Kiriyenko to put questions to the candidate about his government program, already twice rejected by the State Duma.

Several regional leaders, including St. Petersburg city Governor Vladimir Yakovlev, Kemerovo region Governor Aman Tuleev, and Chelyabinsk region Governor Petr Sumin have already called on Duma deputies to approve Kiriyenko. The powerful Moscow Mayor, Yury Luzhkov said Kiriyenko "will be useful to Russia as prime minister," because he "is intelligent, can listen to others and find solutions."

Seleznev has said that the vote on Kiriyenko will take place without a preliminary debate. According to parliamentary rules, the vote should take place in a secret ballot. However, the Duma rejected Kiriyenko's candidacy in an open ballot 17 April. Observers noted that an open ballot made it more difficult for deputies to vote against the advice of their faction leaders.

Most deputies agree that - if the third vote is secret, rather then open - Kiriyenko will have a better chance of collecting the 226 votes he needs to be confirmed by the 450-member Duma.

Communist deputy Vladimir Semago and ultra-nationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky today proposed that the debate on the voting procedure itself be debated openly. Zhirinovsky argued for a secret ballot, saying this could mean that 51 deputies in his Liberal and Democratic Party (LDPR) faction may vote for Kiriyenko's. Zhirinovsky has said that his faction would support Kiriyenko, if two or three "professionals" nominated by the LDPR are appointed to cabinet posts.

Seleznev has said that Yeltsin might visit the Duma in a conciliatory gesture, to present Kiriyenko to legislators. The Kremlin press-service has said Yeltsin has no such plans. Seleznev agreed that Yeltsin's visit has "not been decided," but said that "discussions will be held on this issue ahead of the vote."

Seleznev has been more willing to compromise with the executive branch. As other members of his faction, he has already announced he will vote for Kiriyenko. The Communist Party seems to be divided on the issue, and some clarity is expected as an outcome of the party plenum, scheduled tomorrow.

Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, appearing during a ceremony on Red Square, to mark today's 128th anniversary of the birth of the founder of the Soviet Union, said after laying a wreath on Lenin's Tomb that he (Zyuganov) will "persuade the Communists to vote against Kiriyenko" at tomorrow's plenum.

Zyuganov said yesterday that his party's 134-member Duma faction is "not afraid" of early elections, and will vote against confirming Kiriyenko. Zyuganov said new elections "could be useful for the country," since, in his view, "they would produce a State Duma with 90 percent of new deputies opposed to the government."

But other deputies seem to realize that they are facing a no-win situation, and are likely to change tune and vote for Kiriyenko Friday, rather than vote themselves out of a job. Duma Deputy Chairman Sergei Baburin, of the left-leaning Popular Power faction, has accused Zyuganov of "imitating a fight" over the confirmation of Kiriyenko. And the leader of the Russia's Regions faction, Oleg Morozov, said, "the Duma will not go for dissolution, good sense will prevail." He added that "to agree to the dissolution of the Duma is totally futile from a pragmatic, political and national-interest point of view."

However, another influential player, Duma First Deputy Chairman Vladimir Ryzhkov of the Our Home Is Russia faction said that the Duma "is ready for dissolution." He said that about half of the deputies are already "packing their bags" and preparing for new parliamentary elections. But Ryzhkov added that he hopes the Duma will approve Kiriyenko Friday.

It is clear that Kiriyenko's nomination faces opposition from several fronts and that only Yeltsin is in the position to give a definitive answer to the demands from Duma leaders and business magnates who are trying to influence them. One of the most important issues is the line-up of the next government. Kiriyenko has repeated that he will not use cabinet posts as bargaining chips in his battle to be confirmed by the State Duma. In his frequent talks with Duma leaders he has politely listened to requests and proposals, but, as dismayed Duma deputies say, he has proposed nothing.

Chairman Seleznev today told the Interfax news agency that he will ask Yeltsin to instruct Kiriyenko "to put some light on the line-up of the next government."

Seleznev also said he will ask Yeltsin to abstain from recommending or approving the candidacy of former first deputy prime Minister Anatoly Chubais to the post of Chief executive of state-electricity giant Unified Energy Systems. Chubais' appointment is widely expected, and observers say that it would give an important signals that reform of the dilapidated Russian energy sector will continue.

Other Duma insiders have said that important lobbies, linked to former prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin have also expected Kiriyenko to give guarantees that the new government would not try to increase the pace of reform of other monopolies, including gas giant Gazprom.

The question of who will control economic policy, after the formation of a new cabinet, seems to be extremely important not only for deputies, but mainly for some of the business tycoons who are influencing Russia's policy and refuse to correct Russia's strange brand of capitalism, that most observers call "crony-capitalism."

Seleznev's words about the line-up of the future government and the fate of Chubais are reminiscent of similar views expressed by Chernomyrdin in interviews this week. They are also similar of an article published yesterday by the daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta, one of the media assets controlled by business tycoon Boris Berezovsky, who has unleashed a strong media campaign against Kiriyenko.

Since his ouster 23 March, Chernomyrdin has announced that he intends to run in the next presidential elections, scheduled for the year 2000. Berezovsky has said he personally favors Chernomyrdin, as the guarantor of "stability for existing businesses" and has called on other magnates to join in with their support.

Nezavisimaya gazeta argued yesterday that the appointment of Kiriyenko may 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 realized the President's hope of obtaining an "apolitical government of technocrats" that would better manage the economy. The daily also suggested that parliamentary opposition could be overcame, if Yeltsin would agree to accept the conditions of "big business," namely, that Boris Nemtsov will not remain first deputy prime minister and that Anatoly Chubais not be appointed chief executive of Unified Energy System.

Several Duma members have suggested to RFE/RL recently that unspecified "business interests" had influenced some deputies - even with financial contributions - during the previous votes, resulting in Kiriyenko's rejections.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta seemed to substantiate the rumors. It said that influential businessmen were "behind the most irreconcilable parliamentary deputies," and added that those legislators could become more flexible, if the demands concerning the line-up of the government were met.

Does the president read Berezovsky's Nezavisimaya Gazeta? Probably he does not need to. Berezovsky claims to be the unpaid advisor to Yeltsin's administration chief Valentin Yumashev. Yeltsin's daughter and image advisor, Tatyana Dyachenko, is also said to be close to the tycoon.

Yeltsin knows very well what are the stakes involved in Friday's Duma vote. Nobody can say how he will react, but most observers agree that Yeltsin does not like situations in which he's seen under threat. According to some media reports last week, Yeltsin has already warned Berezovsky to limit his intrigues, or leave the country. Berezovsky had denied the reports, saying that he had a telephone conversation with Yeltsin, but that the President had only called him to ask "which issues are worrying him." He said there was not a word said about Kiriyenko.

Berezovsky is not known for straight talk, when speaking to reporters. To this day, he still refuses to acknowledge his business interests. But, he has made clear his opposition to Kiriyenko.

Now the ball is back in Yeltsin's court.