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Russia: Duma Approves Putin As Prime Minister

The Russian State Duma today performed an act that has become ritual for most deputies. The lower house of parliament, after a discussion lacking enthusiasm, approved the candidacy of Vladimir Putin, president Boris Yeltsin's latest nominee to the post of prime minister. RFE/RL's Floriana Fossato reports from Moscow.

Moscow, 16 August 1999 (RFE/RL) - Ultra-nationalist party leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky today opened his speech ahead of the confirmation vote of prime ministerial nominee Vladimir Putin with a statement sounding more like a question. His words captured the doubt in the minds of many Russian politicians and Kremlin watchers.

"We are, maybe, discussing for the last time in this century a candidate for the post of Russia's prime minister..." he said. The 'maybe' was a reflection of the fact that Putin today became the fifth prime minister in Russia in the last 17 months.

Putin was confirmed by 233 members in the 450-strong State Duma. Eighty four deputies voted against and 17 abstained. Putin needed at least 226 votes in favor to be confirmed.

Putin is a former security services head. Yeltsin appointed him as acting prime minister last Monday, immediately after sacking -- without giving any reason -- his predecessor, Sergei Stepashin.

Previous cabinet reshuffles initiated by the president had been followed by parliamentary resistance to Yeltsin's candidate for prime minister.

This time, however, parliamentary leaders made clear even before the discussion that Putin was likely to be approved in the first of three possible votes.

Most political analysts noted that rejecting Putin would mean risking a confrontation with Yeltsin. If the Duma rejects a presidential nominee for the post of prime minister three times, the president is required to dissolve the Duma and call early elections.

With parliamentary elections set for December, this would have been disastrous for legislators. Many among them use their offices as electoral headquarters.

Such a development would also have thrown the country into political turmoil. And that at a moment when fighting in the north Caucasus republic of Dagestan and pressing economic and social problems require that a working government be in place.

Many deputies knew that the Russian electorate would not welcome such an outcome.

Yeltsin, talking to Russian reporters ahead of the vote, predicted that Putin would be approved "calmly, without shouting."

This is in fact what happened.

After separate meetings with Putin today, key faction leaders said talks had focused more on deputies' wish-lists concerning the work of the new government than on the issue of the nominee's approval.

Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov said his faction's meeting with Putin had focused on economic issues and had not even touched the future composition of the government.

Zyuganov said "We discussed economic issues, the new budget. One of the most important problems we discussed was the help to more than 51 million citizens who are living in poverty. Urgent decisions are to be taken. [We discussed] the fight against corruption and banditism. We did not discuss the composition of the next government, although everybody [in the communist faction] noted that there must be some kind of continuity with previous governments, otherwise there will be nobody able to work this Winter."

Oleg Morozov, leader of the "Russian regions" faction, said deputies had concentrated on key issues, such as the economy and the armed conflict in Dagestan.

Morozov said "We made clear that in general we consider negatively the situation linked with the firing of the [previous] government. For what concerns Putin, deputies had no claims on him personally. Our conversation focused on wishes. Deputies told him their opinion on issues they consider important, in the first place concerning socio-economic policy. We spoke in detail about Dagestan. Also, Putin repeated that he does not plan to make major personnel changes."

During the televised Duma debate ahead of today's vote, the public declarations of lawmakers seemed clearly aimed at using the opportunity to appear on television screens to make electoral speeches. Most used them to criticize Yeltsin and his style of rule.

Most deputies said they had approved Putin's nomination mainly because he will be yet another "technical" prime minister appointed by the Kremlin, and has no real political role. Therefore, they said, there was no point in making a fuss about Yeltsin's last reshuffle. That in spite of the fact that Yeltsin has said he hopes to see Putin succeed him following presidential elections next year.

Putin, for his part, responded to deputies' questions during the Duma debate with brief, cool replies. He said that the most important problem his government faces is how to raise the standard of living of ordinary Russians. He said it is impossible for people to trust authorities who disdain people's interests. Putin also spoke about maintaining law and order in the country and reviving Russia's military power.