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Russia: Prime Minister's Role Evolving From Technocratic To Political

Moscow, 27 July 1998 (RFE/RL) -- As Russian President Boris Yeltsin warned at the week-end that his country is heading toward a "politically difficult autumn," Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko seems to be advancing from the mere technocratic role he assumed when appointed in April to a more political one.

In March, when Yeltsin sacked the entire government of Viktor Chernomyrdin and appointed Kiriyenko, he said the new cabinet's task would be to make economic reform more tangible for Russians.

Kiriyenko's appointment won only lukewarm approval in the State Duma and among influential business leaders. Most pointed out Kiriyenko's lack of political experience and his young age. They said Yeltsin chose the obscure Kiriyenko only because he would act safely as a puppet in the president's hands.

Kiriyenko, who turned 36 yesterday, has acted rather skillfully in the last four months to steer Russia during its worst financial and political crisis in years. He has given the impression that he is acting as an independent-minded politician who consults with the president and enjoys Yeltins's backing.

Kiriyenko and his team have shown decisiveness in dealing with Russia's daunting economic crisis. The government has convinced international financial institutions that it is seriously trying to implement vital economic and fiscal reforms -- reforms that had been promised, but were never fully delivered, by previous governments.

As a result, the Kremlin has obtained part of a first tranche of an important bailout package from the International Monetary Fund. Kremlin officials say privately that the IMF-led bailout was "essential" to calm investors' concerns and allow more time for strategic decisions.

Kiriyenko's achievements since taking office underline the impression that he is now ready to upgrade his political role. Among those achievements are his dealings with parliamentarians and businessmen who have shown little understanding about the government's strict fiscal measures.

Kiriyenko has hinted at his expanding role in recent television interviews. On Russia's NTV commercial channel, he said the problems faced by the government "do not allow" him to be a pure technocrat, but rather, "require a more political role."

Kiriyenko also said "the rules of the game have to be changed and the government is determined to do so." The remarks appear to acknowledge a view that Moscow needs to move away from previous government policies which critics say had helped foster Russia's system of "crony capitalism."

Last week, Kiriyenko also passed an important test of confidence when US Vice-President Al Gore, after two days of meetings in Moscow, praised his personal role in the drafting and implementation of a government-backed anti-crisis program.

It was Gore's first meeting with Kiriyenko. The talks at Kiriyenko's countryside dacha were longer than expected. Afterwards, Gore said he was "impressed" with the new prime minister and his commitment to advance reform. He also offered an upbeat assessment of Russia's economic prospects.

Gore said Kiriyenko has a "full command of the facts" and that their talks were "very concentrated and fruitful." He said he was confident Kiriyenko's team could carry out fiscal policies included in the anti-crisis program and overcome domestic opposition to some of the measures. Analysts see this opposition mainly in parliament and among influential business groups that influence public opinion through the media they control.

Kiriyenko said opposition in parliament and in society to the painful fiscal measures is "normal." He said he does not intend to "pay too much attention to political emotions," but wants to find "common approaches" that would guarantee the approval of his policies by a broad spectrum of society.

For his part, Gore expressed support for Russia's membership bid to the World Trade Organization, a point likely to be welcomed by the Russian business community. Gore also spoke with Yeltsin by telephone about U.S. President Bill Clinton's scheduled September trip to Moscow.

Gore and Kiriyenko also met briefly with Chernomyrdin. U.S. officials with Gore's entourage said relations between the vice president and the former prime minister remain friendly. The U.S. officials also predicted that Kiriyenko's team will bring a new quality of relations to the work of a commission on technical and scientific relations. Chernomyrdin and Gore had previously co-chaired that commission.

During their press conference, Gore and Kiriyenko both answered a question from a reporter of the daily "Nezavisimaya Gazeta," who asked Gore if the U.S. administration had a contingency plan in case of a Russian "collapse." Before Gore answered, Kiriyenko explained to him that the newspaper "for the last four months has tensely been waiting for a collapse." After that, Gore said that in his opinion "a collapse scenario is completely unrealistic."

"Nezavisimaya Gazeta" is financed by CIS Executive Secretary Boris Berezovsky, who is seen in Moscow as one of the main critics of Kiriyenko's government. On the day of Gore's visit to Moscow, the newspaper's editor-in-chief, Vitaly Tretyakov, repeated an earlier call for the formation of a Temporary State Council on early presidential and parliamentary elections. Tretyakov wrote that only the creation of such a body, together with the return of Chernomyrdin to the post of prime minister or the appointment of a new government, would save Russia from turmoil.

Yeltsin, who is vacationing in Northern Russia, met Kiriyenko on Saturday. The Prime Minister briefed him on Gore's visit and on the latest developments.

After the meeting, Yeltsin said "a politically difficult autumn awaits us." He said that "as always, there is a little breather and then (problems) starts again."

A number of new measures aimed at dealing with the situation were revealed after the meeting.

Yeltsin signed a decree dismissing Nikolai Kovalev, the head of the Federal Security Service, (eds: the successor of KGB) and replacing him with Vladimir Putin, a close presidential administration official.

He also ordered the government to prepare the sale of a 5 percent stake in Gazprom, the world's largest natural gas monopoly, to boost state budget revenues.

Yeltsin also asked Kiriyenko to meet later this week with Aslan Maskhadov, the leader of southern Russia's separatist region of Chechnya, who survived an assassination attempt last week. The offer, welcomed by Maskhadov, is designed to help the Chechen leader establish order and stability in the troubled republic. A date and location for the meeting have not yet to be announced.