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Deputy Premier Is Blazing a Trail of Hope in Russia

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

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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.

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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.

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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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Nemtsov was among the first to bare his personal finances, disclosing ownership of a two-room apartment here, a 5-year-old Russian-made Zhiguli compact, savings of $1,300 and 1996 income of less than $16,000.

Modest living has played a large part in endearing the tall, clean-cut scientist to average Russians, as have his vows never to accept a bribe, defect, resort to brutality or collaborate with Communists, fascists or nationalist hothead Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky.

The indulged only child of a Communist Party functionary and a doctor, Nemtsov spent his early years in the Black Sea resort of Sochi before moving to this military-industrial city, known in the Soviet era as Gorky. He earned a graduate degree in theoretical physics from Gorky State University but turned to politics in the late 1980s to campaign against construction of a nuclear plant here after the devastating 1986 accident at the Chernobyl plant in Ukraine.

Nemtsov rose to regional fame in defeating the project, propelling him into the Russian parliament in 1990 and a year later into the post of Nizhny Novgorod governor at age 31.

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Always one for the dramatic gesture, he personally presided over the televised auction of the first privatized businesses in this city and transformed Nizhny Novgorod into the regional poster child for reform.

At least two previous approaches by Yeltsin to draw Nemtsov into the Kremlin were rebuffed. But earlier this year, Yeltsin sent his 37-year-old daughter and political confidant, Tatyana Dyachenko, to appeal to Nemtsov’s senses of patriotism and ambition.

On his first day on the job, Nemtsov declared that he would resurrect industrial production and would start with an edict that the government always “buy Russian.” Hitting out at the fleet of lavish Mercedes-Benzes, BMWs and Saabs shuttling government ministers around the capital, Nemtsov called for auctions to begin within a month. Few critics failed to overlook the pork-barrel prospects for Nizhny Novgorod, home of the auto works producing Volga sedans.

Resistance was clear from the inauspicious results of the first auction: Government garages only offered seven cars, and three of those weren’t sold for failure to elicit minimum bids.

“It was pure populism. But when you have government officials flying around in expensive foreign cars, this is offensive to people struggling to put food on the table,” said Sergei Yefimenkov, whose Avtogarant firm is directing the sell-off. “From the moral point of view, it was successful. Economically, it’s another story.”

Nemtsov has also hinted that he might push for tighter restrictions on “special flights” for officials on the grounds that if regularly scheduled air transport is good enough for the people, it should be good enough for public servants.

Another early strike at institutions of privilege was his insistence that the monolithic Gazprom natural gas entity pay up its staggering tax arrears and manage government shares more profitably. Russian state coffers have received only $3.5 million over the past five years from a 40% stake in Gazprom, one of the world’s richest companies, valued in at least double-digit billions.

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Because the natural resource industries are among the most mob-infiltrated, Nemtsov’s challenge to Gazprom prompted predictions that he was not long for this world.

A deal cut with Gazprom soon after raked in $1 billion in back taxes--almost half of what was owed--in exchange for dropping insistence that the management hand over control of the government portfolio. Some saw that as evidence that the Kremlin’s new golden boy could pull himself out of the fire. Others contend that he has already embarked on the slippery slope of moral compromise.

“I am absolutely certain Nemtsov will not be able to make any significant change in this government,” insisted Lev A. Ponomarev, a prominent human rights champion and leader of the Democratic Russia political movement. “All he has done so far is engage in populism with the finest of Soviet methods. This is a young man who has studied the old textbooks.”

Aside from the splashy moves to make the government appear in tune with the people, Nemtsov and a pair of allies have reaped credit for some improvements of the economic landscape as well as a discernible social mood swing.

Teamed with Chubais, 42, and another vice premier from the provinces, Oleg Sysuyev, 44, Nemtsov has infused the flagging transition with new energy and direction.

“It was difficult for him, as it was for me, to leave Nizhny and move to Moscow,” said Boris Brevnov, who heads the powerful Unified Energy Systems. “But it was absolutely the right decision. He is creating an atmosphere of trust in the government, which is necessary to succeed with the reforms.”

While Nemtsov is clearly being groomed for the 2000 election, three years is an eternity in Russian politics. And the Kremlin wunderkind, who is married and has a 14-year-old daughter, has already incurred a few black marks on his record--he had his fingers burned by involvement in regional power struggles.

Still, he has soared higher and faster than any political shooting star since Alexander I. Lebed, the Security Council chief fired by Yeltsin a year ago for an offensive excess of ambition.


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