Originally created 09/13/98

Primakov gets down to work as Russia's new prime minister



MOSCOW -- Russia's new Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov set to work Saturday on the daunting task of pulling the country out of its worst economic crisis since the Soviet collapse. He began by promising Western lenders they would be repaid.

"Let nobody doubt this. Russia is not a country to declare itself bankrupt and never will be. The new government will see to that and is already working along these lines," Primakov told top Russian editors, according to the ITAR-Tass news agency.

President Boris Yeltsin nominated Primakov, the former foreign minister, last week after his first choice for prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, was twice rejected in parliament.

Yeltsin continued housecleaning Saturday, firing his longtime and loyal press spokesman, Sergei Yastrzhembsky. The spokesman was widely admired for his ability to smooth over Yeltsin's rough spots and explain his sometimes erratic behavior.

Yeltsin also appointed a new general director of the Russian Public Television channel, ORT. The new director, Igor Shabdurasulov, had been chief of the governmental information department.

Together, the two actions suggest a renewed concern at the Kremlin for Yeltsin's image. The vast majority in polls have disapproved of the president's performance and the recent economic and political turmoil has only deepened public dissatisfaction.

The Communist-dominated lower house of parliament, the State Duma, may have sensed Yeltsin's vulnerability when it chose to challenge his nomination of Chernomyrdin to replace Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko, whom Yeltsin fired last month as the economy was crashing.

Primakov was a compromise candidate who was acceptable to almost everyone, and he sailed through confirmation hearings and a Duma vote on Friday. As one Moscow newspaper noted Saturday, he seemed to offer something for everyone.

"In the space of a few minutes, he managed to say what people on the left, on the right, patriots and pro-Westerners wanted to hear," Nezavisimaya Gazeta commented.

The question now is whether Primakov can continue to be all things to all people -- and rescue the country's economy while he's at it.

Primakov spent Saturday in meetings with editors and with his former colleagues at the Foreign Ministry.

He told lawmakers on Friday that he had no ready answers to the country's chronic economic problems. However, he did sketch the broad outlines of his approach to solving the crisis: continued reform with more state control, increased involvement of Russia's powerful regional leaders, improving the government's own discipline, and using the financial system to boost Russian industry as well as to fill the state's coffers.

Those proposals, along with the other appointments to the Cabinet, suggest that the government is abandoning any pretense toward pursuing radical market-oriented reforms.

In place of the young team assembled under the 36-year-old Kiriyenko, Yeltsin has fallen back on a retirement-age group of former Soviet officials headed by the 68-year-old Primakov.

For instance, the new deputy prime minister for economic policy, 60-year-old Yuri Maslyukov, is a Communist Party member and former head of the Soviet Union's central planning agency.

He has called for an economic policy based on strong support for industry. According to the pro-reform Izvestiya daily, his plan calls for massive printing of money, large budget expenditures and a significant state budget.

The most vigorous voice of market reforms in the Cabinet may belong to Boris Fyodorov, acting deputy prime minister and tax chief. He favors tying the Russian ruble to a stable currency like the U.S. dollar, accelerating bankruptcy procedures and lowering the burden on taxpayers.