Technocrat was molded by Old Guard Gas minister picked to be prime minister

December 15, 1992|By Los Angeles Times

MOSCOW -- If Viktor S. Chernomyrdin's rise to prime minister of Russia were to become a movie, it might be titled, "The Old Guard Rides Again."

The 54-year-old former Soviet minister of the gas industry looked distressingly familiar as he made his brief, gruff acceptance speech at the Russian Congress of People's Deputies yesterday. The ugly brown flowered tie with the steely blue suit; the official, formal style . . .

The "apparatchik" is back.

Actually, it is unfair to lump Mr. Chernomyrdin (pronounced Chair-noh-MIR-din) in with the hard-liners of the old Communist elite. Although his biography follows the classic pattern of any middle-aged careerist Communist, he sees himself -- and others see him -- as much more of an industrial technocrat than an ideologue of the old days.

As deputy prime minister in charge of energy over recent months, he has given strong verbal support to outgoing Prime Minister Yegor T. Gaidar's team of radical reformers. When he differed with them, it was over such tactical points as when to release state control of oil prices, not whether to release it at all.

Still, his accession to the pinnacle of the Russian government somehow had a retro feeling: gone are the bold print ties of the young Gaidar team; the browns are back in. And more important, out is Mr. Gaidar, a Western-oriented theorist with a deep grounding in economics and the courage to take radical steps.

In his place is a man known for his ability to oversee one particular industry well, a former oil refinery worker whose main asset is considered his skill as a manager.

"He's a fantastic gas professional," said Mikhail Leontiev, a columnist for the weekly Moscow News. "But he's also a person who's classically incapable of being a prime minister. He doesn't think in economic terms."

In other words, Mr. Chernomyrdin is a product of the old Communist system of state planning and centralized distribution. After working his way up in the oil industry and then the gas industry, he served in the Communist Party apparatus from 1978 to 1982, helping run the energy industry by administrative fiat, rather than by market forces.

Along with praising Mr. Chernomyrdin's hands-on experience, deputies generally called him a centrist, a middle-of-the-roader who might consolidate political forces as the radical Mr. Gaidar could not.

Sergei Stankevich, an adviser to Yeltsin, said that under Mr. Chernomyrdin, "The reform program will be less radical."

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