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Yeltsin Names Potential Successor to Top Post

Russia: Reformer Boris Y. Nemtsov, 37, is tapped first deputy premier. Move is among several by president to jump-start stagnant economy.

March 18, 1997|RICHARD C. PADDOCK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin lured a potential presidential successor into his camp Monday, appointing a charismatic young governor to a powerful post in his Cabinet.

Yeltsin's surprise move, on the eve of his summit in Finland with President Clinton, gave the job of first deputy premier to Boris Y. Nemtsov, the popular 37-year-old governor of Nizhny Novgorod--who not long ago was leading protests against nuclear power and Yeltsin's war in Chechnya.

"I will not lie; I will not take bribes or steal," pledged Nemtsov, who has been a leader in his central region's economic reconstruction. In his first act in his new post, he called on government officials to give up their Mercedes and Rolls-Royces and get into Russian-made cars--which are Nizhny Novgorod's main product.

The appointment of Nemtsov was one of several moves Yeltsin made Monday in an effort to revitalize his troubled government and jump-start the country's stagnant economy. Several conservative ministers were replaced by market-oriented Yeltsin allies, who will now take firm control of the Cabinet.

Former presidential Chief of Staff Anatoly B. Chubais, 41, whom Yeltsin earlier had named a first deputy premier, also was appointed minister of finance, giving him even greater power over economic issues.

"Two young men--you and Anatoly Chubais--create a fresh young team in the government--from scratch," an enthusiastic Yeltsin told Nemtsov during a televised meeting.

In a rare interview with American, Russian and Finnish television, Yeltsin also declared he is healthier now than before his heart problems and bypass surgery last year.

"No one is insured against illness," Yeltsin said. "Take Bill Clinton; all of a sudden he became ill. Everybody was saying that sick Yeltsin and healthy Clinton will come to Helsinki [the Finnish capital], and it is the other way around. Healthy Yeltsin and sick Clinton will go."

Healthy or not, Yeltsin will be out of office by at least 2000--when his term expires--and until now his administration has fostered no promising heir apparent.

Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, who remains nominal head of the Cabinet, and Chubais are so unpopular that neither would stand a chance of winning office on his own.

Chubais, who held the government together during Yeltsin's eight-month illness, remains in the administration because he has proved himself a capable strategist in the transition to a market economy. Chernomyrdin has gained job security in part because replacing him would require that his successor be confirmed by the Duma, the lower house of parliament, which is now dominated by Yeltsin's foes.

By bringing Nemtsov into the Cabinet, Yeltsin immediately elevated the new deputy premier's national standing and made him an instant rival to the other presidential contenders.

Nemtsov, who likes to play tennis and entertained actor Richard Gere at his country estate after the 1995 Moscow Film Festival, has made his mark by successfully boosting the economy in his region.

"He is very energetic and smart," the president said. "When we talked today, ideas were just pouring out of him."

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A telegenic activist and problem solver, Nemtsov has a strong political base and numerous allies; some encouraged him last year to run for president against Yeltsin, but he refused.

He got his start in politics as a young physicist after the nuclear accident at Chernobyl in Ukraine prompted him to lead an unprecedented grass-roots movement that defeated plans to build a nuclear power plant in Nizhny Novgorod.

He was later elected to the Duma from the region 250 miles east of Moscow and joined Yeltsin in defending the White House against the August 1991 coup. Soon after, Yeltsin appointed him governor of Nizhny Novgorod; Nemtsov says it was because he was the only person the president knew there.

Nevertheless, Nemtsov has maintained his independence. Defying Yeltsin last year, he presented the president with petitions bearing 1 million signatures of people opposed to the war in Chechnya.

Nemtsov played down any political advantage in his move to Moscow and said he could easily make himself unpopular in the 18 months to two years that he estimates it will take to turn the country's economy around.

Among the officials who lost their jobs Monday was First Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir O. Potanin, an industrialist who joined the Cabinet only in September to provide a business perspective.

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