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Unruly Lawmakers Reject Yeltsin's Choice of Reformer for Premier

Russia: But Kiriyenko, renominated by defiant president, stands a better chance on second ballot expected next week.

April 11, 1998|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — Russia's contentious lawmakers Friday rejected President Boris N. Yeltsin's choice of reformer Sergei V. Kiriyenko for prime minister, sending the country into a fourth week without a government or clear successor to the frail head of state.

But because the constitution gives legislators until the count of three to behave as the president dictates--Yeltsin is empowered to dissolve the parliament, if deputies thrice vote against his nominee--few had expected Kiriyenko's ratification on the first ballot.

Within an hour of the 186-143 vote against the 35-year-old former banker and oil industry executive, Yeltsin defiantly sent a letter to the rebellious deputies renominating Kiriyenko. The state Duma, the lower house, has until next Friday to reconsider and take a second vote.

Kiriyenko was plucked from relative obscurity to act as head of government after Yeltsin fired former Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin and his entire Cabinet on March 23. Since then, most of the 50-odd ministers and committee chiefs have been retained in an acting capacity, but their authority has been weakened by the uncertainty over who will stay on and who will be sent packing.

The Duma vote showed that many lawmakers are willing to stall endorsement of Kiriyenko, but few are expected to taunt Yeltsin into dissolving their cushy platform and calling new elections by voting down the nomination on the final ballot.

The deputies are likely to be equally wary of rejecting for a second time Kiriyenko, who has sought consensus with political foes in his mission to rebuild Russia's ravaged economy. That's because they then would be obligated to ratify whomever is submitted the third time to prevent the dissolving of parliament, and there are figures far more objectionable to the opposition than the mild-mannered Kiriyenko.

Still, Kiriyenko warned Communists and nationalists in the 450-seat Duma that his program is invulnerable to "haggling and blackmail" and that opposition demands to share power would never prevail.

Opposition leaders had been talking tough ahead of the anonymous electronic voting on the appointment. But their fear of facing early elections was evident because the vote was closer than expected. Only the pro-government Our Home Is Russia faction, which holds 67 seats in the Duma, had said it would back Yeltsin's choice.

"To be honest, I expected there would be fewer votes in my support," Kiriyenko told journalists after the Duma decision. He lamented the further delay in forming a new government, arguing that Russia's economic performance is flagging while the deputies play politics.

The Kremlin reacted to the Duma vote with cocky indifference.

"Not bad for a start," said Sergei V. Yastrzhembsky, Yeltsin's spokesman. He also indicated that Yeltsin was going ahead with a planned visit to Japan on April 18 and said it is "possible" he will travel even if there is still no prime minister in place.

Yeltsin has long been troubled by heart and respiratory ailments, and the 67-year-old president is especially prone to falling ill after distant travels.

Russia's Constitution specifies that the prime minister takes over if the president becomes incapacitated, but it provides no clear guidance on succession if the office of government chief is also empty.

Both Yeltsin and Kiriyenko made clear that they are unbowed by the Duma opposition and will continue to reject demands by Communist Party leader Gennady A. Zyuganov for a coalition government.

"My task is not to play up to anyone, it is to draft an economic program for the government that will enable us to revive Russia's economy," Kiriyenko responded when asked if his cabinet proposals will be altered in view of the rejection.

In a 30-minute address to the Duma before the confirmation vote, Kiriyenko gave deputies a blunt analysis of the situation in Russia. Last year's modest economic growth has faltered, losses from sagging world oil prices could mount to billions, a third of budget revenue now goes to service debt, and a quarter of the 148 million population lives in poverty, the prime minister-designate noted.

Yeltsin warned in an early morning radio address that he would resubmit Kiriyenko's nomination immediately if the Duma voted it down.

"I insist on Kiriyenko's candidacy. He is a professional manager who knows how to work in a team and shuns self-promotion and cheap populism," Yeltsin said in his weekly broadcast. "I don't have another candidate."

Most Duma factions had been warning since Kiriyenko's nomination two weeks ago that they will shoot down his candidacy for the permanent job. Some deputies have expressed concern that Kiriyenko is too young and lacking in government service to choose and direct a cabinet.

But most of the resistance is believed to be knee-jerk opposition among Yeltsin's political enemies, who hold sway in the Duma.

Russia's strong presidency relegates the parliament to little more than a political sideshow, though lawmakers can frustrate Kremlin policy by dragging their feet on important bills, official appointments and treaty ratifications.

Foreign investment in Russia has been painfully slow because the Duma has yet to approve a tax code, and the next U.S.-Russian summit is hostage to long-delayed endorsement of the 1993 START II arms reduction accord.

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