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Russia: Duma Confirms Mikhail Kasyanov As Prime Minister

Russian prime ministers are usually confirmed after weeks of heated discussions and behind the scenes wheeling and dealing. But the Russian Duma today broke with tradition and overwhelmingly confirmed President Vladimir Putin's first choice, Mikhail Kasyanov, without much debate or delay. RFE/RL correspondent Sophie Lambroschini takes a look at this new prime minister who is supported by such a broad spectrum.

Moscow, 17 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The nomination of unassertive Mikhail Kasyanov as prime minister is seen in Russia as a sign the center of power will rest more than ever in the Kremlin, not the Duma.

The 42-year-old Kasyanov is a veteran of Boris Yeltsin's era, and was deputy prime minister and finance minister under Vladimir Putin's premiership. Since Yeltsin resigned on New Year's Eve, making Putin acting president, Kasyanov has been de facto running the government.

Some Russian newspapers allege Kasyanov has close ties to Boris Berezovsky, a business tycoon or "oligarch" who is seen as a Kremlin insider. Before his confirmation as finance minister last year, Kasyanov had to fend off criticism that he is not independent enough from the oligarchs. These ties, critics say, make him an unconvincing person to carry out Putin's avowed plan of reining in the oligarchs.

Speaking in front of the Duma today, Kasyanov denied having such links.

"I again confirm that I don't see any problems with or obligations toward any group, and am ready to explain myself on this issue if any reason arises."

In spite of the innuendo surrounding his relationship with tycoons, economists and investment specialists say Kasyanov will make an acceptable chief of government. They say his financial experience can complement Putin's relative inexperience.

Kasyanov has a good reputation with Western financial institutions. His main public achievement has been to persuade the London Club of private investors to write off a third of Russia's $32 billion debt.

The Russian weekly "Itogi" sees the appointment of the discreet and careful Kasyanov as a sign the president will take an increased role in policy-making. Kasyanov's mission, the paper says, will simply be to keep the Russian economy going for the next year or so.

How he will do that remains a mystery. In a speech before the Duma voted, Kasyanov stuck to general statements about reform.

"The country needs change. It needs consistent, clear, but weighty measures so that the positive start can be reinforced."

He also pledged to make changes to the banking sector and to reduce taxes.

During consultations with the various factions in the Duma, Kasyanov was careful to alienate neither the market-oriented Union of Rightist Forces nor the leftists. The Duma voted 335 to 55 today to confirm him. Those opposed to his confirmation included 36 Communist deputies as well as a few from Yabloko, the Agrarian party, and other parties (and Sergei Kovalyov).

In recent days Kasyanov has portrayed himself as a moderate, saying he supports reform as long as it is balanced and does not create a shock for people.

According to recent media reports, Kasyanov opposes parts of a widely advertised economic policy plan created for Putin by the Center for Strategic Development, a think-tank. The plan's ambitious economic growth estimates were toned down at Kasyanov's request.

Observers are waiting to see whether the think-tank's director, German Gref, will enter the government. Putin said last week there will be few changes in the present government.