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Deputy Premier Is Blazing a Trail of Hope in Russia

Politics: Boris Nemtsov's feel-good message fueled his meteoric rise. Cynics say his populist crusade can't last.

July 13, 1997|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NIZHNY NOVGOROD, Russia — He calls himself a kamikaze, and, indeed, many expect the brash Boris Yefimovich Nemtsov to quickly crash and burn.

In the four months since he left the helm of the government of this prosperous Volga River reform showcase to become a first deputy prime minister in Moscow, the charismatic crusader has taken aim at the corrupt and the greedy who have made post-Soviet Russia a vast and terrifying gangland.

The 37-year-old former physicist has presided over the first promising signs of economic recovery since Russia jettisoned communism, and, to the cheers of the struggling masses, has waged war against government fat cats junketing in imported luxury cars and chartered planes.

Because such populist grandstanding could threaten bribe-taking bureaucrats' personal welfare, a consensus has formed in this nation of cynics that such a squeaky-clean figure will soon be compromised or defeated.

But the virus of gloom that infects most Russians has failed to penetrate Nemtsov or cramp the boyish optimism that sets him apart from the dour ranks of Russian leaders. Despite his grudging acceptance of what he considers a suicide mission, the latest politician now pegged as a possible successor to Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin is irrepressibly and calculatingly cheerful.

"First of all, kamikazes don't always end up dead," Nemtsov said, fixing his interlocutor with the wide-eyed ebony gaze that has made him the darling of Russian politics, at least among the country's women. "And secondly, the prospects are not hopeless."

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In interviews, speeches and heavily publicized travels, Nemtsov has been spreading his feel-good message about Russia's future, promising to root out crooked officials, to cut energy and transport costs and to make the benefits of democracy and a market economy tangible for all Russians.

He has added a splash of youthful exuberance with his habit of bounding from planes, trains and automobiles, all of Russian make and modest proportions, even as he has expanded the entourage of aides and sycophants surrounding every Russian power-seeker since Peter the Great. On a trip to Japan, he was accompanied by 80 advisors, and his recent visit here paralyzed traffic for miles whenever his 10-vehicle motorcade speeded through.

His meteoric rise over other would-be successors to Yeltsin has serendipitously coincided with the first tiny increase in industrial production--a trend that Nemtsov insists will continue, allowing idle Russians to find jobs, earn dignified wages, pay taxes and support a social safety net for the poor.

"Trust in the government cannot be restored by proclamations," Nemtsov said in an interview, earnestly explaining how he intends to convince wary Russians that their leadership is not a plaything of organized crime. "This can only be achieved by concrete actions, openness, accessibility and good judgment."

He ticked off advances in paying overdue pensions, lowering interest rates and railroad tariffs and boosting public revenues from some of the country's wealthiest tax deadbeats.

That performance is far from a personal achievement, however; fellow First Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly B. Chubais has foremost responsibility for economic matters. But as the considerably more popular half of the leadership's new dynamic duo, the ever-smiling Nemtsov has been positioned to take the bows.

Critics and fans alike say Nemtsov is guided by a keen sense of what will play with the people, especially fellow "provincials," the usually derogatory label applied by Muscovites to those from the far-flung regions.

"The Provincial" is the title of Nemtsov's recently released autobiography, an immodest account of his every triumph and quaintly humanizing tribulation.

Until Nemtsov was lured into the federal leadership from his illustrious tenure as governor of Nizhny Novgorod, there was not a single figure in the Kremlin hierarchy with a hope of winning a fair presidential election. Grooming a successor has become less pressing since Yeltsin has recovered from quintuple bypass surgery, but Nemtsov's one-man charm offensive has wiped some of the grime from the government's image.

It took him only three weeks to reach the top of popularity polls--a statistical feat that would mean little in a society steeped in apathy if his name and crowd-pleasing gestures weren't a constant topic at bus stops, in elevators and around the kitchen table.

"He's the only hope for this country," said Eduard Kruglyakov, a fellow physicist in Novosibirsk. "The academic world is the last refuge of honest men, and it is no coincidence that this is where he comes from."

Among his more popular campaigns have been a call to auction off Western luxury cars bought for the government with public money and for full financial disclosure by elected officials.

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