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Russia: Woman To Administer Social Affairs Portfolio

Moscow, 23 September 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The promotion of Valentina Matviyenko, Russia's Ambassador to Greece, to the post of Russian Deputy Prime Minister for social affairs, is interpreted in Moscow as a tactical attempt by Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov to limit his new government's vulnerability to criticism in that sector.

Before she was sent to Athens, Matviyenko was director of a section of the Foreign Ministry grandiosely titled "Department for Relations with Federation Members, the Federal Parliament, and Social and Political Organizations." In short, she was a lobbyist for Primakov when he was foreign minister. His relative success in sustaining support from a broad spectrum of deputies was, in large measure, Matviyenko's achievement also.

In the past, President Boris Yeltsin has selected women to take charge of the social portfolio when he thought they could blunt public resentment at the government's failure to pay wages and pensions.

Ella Pamfilova was for instance selected from pro-government ranks, as was Irina Hakamada. Oksana Dimitrieva, from Grigory Yavlinsky's Social Democratic faction, was given the labor ministry earlier this year. None of them however managed to have any impact on the worsening social conditions in the country.

Opposition politicians point out that so long as the finances of the government are directed at bailing out Russia's powerful banks and commercial interests, there can be little for Matviyenko to do.

Primakov has promised to repay wages, pensions, and depositors' savings, but public reaction is deeply skeptical of his ability to deliver. Matviyenko faces the same doubt. A current opinion poll found that less than 6 percent of Russians believe the country is going in the "right direction."

By picking a woman, Primakov is probably also trying to reduce his weakness in the latest polls. These show that, while he commands 65 percent approval from Russian men, his backing from Russian women is much weaker, at 52 percent.

Among the first observations to be made about Matviyenko, since her unexpected appointment was announced this week, the best is that she is an "iron lady", with strong personal will and solid political ties to Primakov. The worst is that she has been selected for a job no-one else wants.

It has already been confirmed that Primakov first offered the post, which oversees the government's labor, health and welfare portfolios, to Yavlinsky, the Social Democratic opposition leader in the Duma. Yavlinsky refused, and went on the attack against Primakov for failure to enunciate a clear set of policy priorities. The strain of the Russian crisis sent Yavlinsky to hospital with suspected heart trouble on the weekend.

After Yavlinsky's refusal, Primakov turned to Vladimir Ryzhkov, the 33-year old leader of the pro-government faction in the Duma, Our Home is Russia. Ryzhkov accepted privately, but then called a press conference to say that he was withdrawing. He claimed he was unable to deal with the magnitude of Russia's social problems.

Matviyenko's immediate predecessor was Oleg Syusyev, who was promoted by Yeltsin because of his connections with the country's regional and city governments. He was mayor of Samara at the time. Syusyev replaced Victor Ilyushin, once one of Yeltsin's closest aides, who was dumped during Yeltsin's lengthy illness in 1996. For Ilyushin, the rank of deputy prime minister was something hollow, and he quickly took over instead the public relations division of Gazprom.

(John Helmer, a correspondent based in Moscow frequently contributes to RFE/RL)