Duma strongly backs Primakov as Russia's new prime minister Amid calls for new deal, his first appointments bring to mind Soviet past

September 12, 1998|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Calling on him to rise to the stature of a Russian Roosevelt and lead the nation away from economic collapse, the lower house of parliament enthusiastically approved Yevgeny M. Primakov as prime minister last night.

The new prime minister's first appointments, however, were hardly reminiscent of the bold minds that fashioned Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal and recast American capitalism. Instead, they came from the Soviet past, reminding some Russians of the old deal that served them so badly.

Primakov, 68, called upon his generation of former Soviet bureaucrats, naming Viktor V. Gerashchenko, 60, as head of the Central Bank and Yuri D. Maslyukov, also 60, as deputy prime minister in charge of economic policy.

Gerashchenko, once called the world's worst central banker by a Harvard University economist, has held the job twice before and was last fired in October 1994, after the ruble fell 25 percent in one day.

Maslyukov, a Communist, was the Soviet Union's chief central planner as head of Gosplan in the late 1980s. President Boris N. Yeltsin brought him back into government in July, appointing him trade and industry minister in an effort to appease hard-line opponents.

Some market analysts predicted old-style policies, but others were waiting to see whether lessons had been learned from the financial disaster that's been steadily closing in.

While approving Primakov by a vote of 317 to 63, the State Duma was not as eager to endorse Gerashchenko, who has been associated with inflationary policies. They voted for him 273 to 65. Several deputies said they voted yes only in the spirit of compromise that greeted Primakov's nomination.

"We had him as the boss of the Central Bank for quite a long while," said Alexei G. Arbatov, a deputy from the liberal Yabloko faction, "and his record was not very encouraging. And we don't understand why we have to appoint the same people all the time as if we have a shortage of able people who are not discredited by previous failures."

Liberals looked at the three men as dinosaurs from an earlier age, referring to the emerging government as a "Jurassic Park," and wondering whether they would find themselves able to survive in today's climate.

Primakov assured the Duma before yesterday's vote that there was no going back to an earlier age. He promised to continue with reforms, but he also said he would moderate the wild capitalism that has developed here, much as Roosevelt did in 1930s America.

"The state must interfere in and regulate many processes in the economy," Primakov said. "This is not a return to the command and administrative system. No. But the state must do this. Indeed, it has not occurred to anyone to condemn the U.S., for example, when Roosevelt introduced some elements of state regulation in the economy after the Great Depression."

Primakov, who until yesterday was Russia's foreign minister, sought to reassure the rest of the world about Russian foreign policy, in which he has often taken a hard line. He said he would aggressively protect the nation's interests while avoiding confrontation.

"We do not need any confrontation, we do not need any return to the Cold War," he said. "There will be no return to the Cold War."

Primakov said that Deputy Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, 52, would succeed him as foreign minister. Ivanov, a career diplomat and former ambassador to Spain, is expected to maintain Russia's present course of foreign policy.

Though some deputies clearly were uneasy about Maslyukov and Gerashchenko, they agreed to support Primakov until they saw concrete evidence to persuade them otherwise. Nearly all were on their best behavior, as if afraid that any small argument could easily explode into an uncontrollable one, and damage their fragile peace.

After wrangling with Yeltsin over Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, his previous nominee for prime minister, the deputies were not interested in another dangerous battle. Neither was Primakov. While Chernomyrdin had tried to order and threaten the deputies into voting for him, Primakov did the opposite.

"If you don't support my government," he said, "don't vote for me."

Gennady A. Zyuganov, the Communist leader who had led the fight against Chernomyrdin, praised Primakov for his diplomacy in addressing the Duma.

"It's a totally different conversation we're having here," he said.

One outspoken exception came from Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky, the volatile ultranationalist, who led his Liberal Democratic Party in voting against Primakov.

"This is a dictatorship," Zhirinovsky shouted. "I won't vote for you. You're forming a Communist government."

But most other deputies were willing to wait and see -- and to hope.

"You have a chance to become a Russian Roosevelt, to take Russia out of depression," said Oleg Morozov, a conservative. "You can't afford to lose that chance."

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