President Boris N. Yeltsin on Friday nominated little-known acting Prime Minister Sergei V. Kiriyenko to head the government through 2000 and vowed to exercise his right to dissolve the opposition-dominated parliament if deputies reject his choice.
The ratify-or-else challenge underscored Yeltsin's uncompromising approach to rebuilding his Cabinet after five years of plodding governance by the recently sacked Viktor S. Chernomyrdin. And it shed light on the president's apparent strategy to position young reformers to follow in his footsteps.
The Communist-controlled Duma, the lower house of parliament, will probably vote on Kiriyenko's nomination in a week, Speaker Gennady N. Seleznyov said. He expressed displeasure with Yeltsin's "ultimatum" on endorsement but said he expected the Duma to comply.
According to the Russian Constitution, the president is obliged to disband parliament and call new elections if deputies vote against his prime ministerial appointment three times. But the Communists and nationalists who now control the Duma are likely to give Kiriyenko the nod because otherwise they would undoubtedly lose ground in early elections.
"We are not scared by an ultimatum, and the president should know this," Seleznyov stated, but he appeared to concede the fight by adding: "We will give the president no constitutional grounds to dissolve the Duma."
Yeltsin on Monday fired Chernomyrdin as prime minister and asked all 50-odd Cabinet members to resign so the next government leader could make a fresh start.
That clean-slate approach helps explain Yeltsin's choice of Kiriyenko, a former provincial banker and oil-industry executive with only a year of government service. Although he has been criticized by Duma deputies as lacking the experience to be Cabinet chief, the independent technocrat comes to the job without enemies or political baggage.
The bespectacled, unassuming Kiriyenko was brought to Moscow from the Volga River city of Nizhny Novgorod by Boris Y. Nemtsov, the 38-year-old reform crusader and former Nizhny governor who Yeltsin has hinted would be his choice as Kremlin heir apparent. Yeltsin, who has heart ailments and at 67 has already lived a decade longer than the average Russian male, has taken Nemtsov along on provincial and foreign trips and explained his presence as necessary preparation for "passing the baton."
Reaction to Kiriyenko's nomination among Russia's powerful industrialists was mostly positive, although many had begun pinning hopes on Chernomyrdin as the next president. The former prime minister, who turns 60 next month, made his own fortune in the gold-rush atmosphere of Russia's early 1990s privatization and is widely considered more pliable than Nemtsov by the new billionaires still aiming to increase their assets.
By appointing Kiriyenko as prime minister, instead of Nemtsov, Yeltsin can prevent his protege from becoming too visible a target for the opposition and the man officially responsible when things go wrong.
Billionaire businessman Boris A. Berezovsky said he considered the appointment of a relatively weak and untested prime minister a good move by Yeltsin at a time when populist challengers like controversial retired general Alexander I. Lebed and shadowy Moscow mayor Yuri M. Luzhkov are lurking on the political horizon. Both men have significant popular support and are expected to run against Yeltsin's anointed successor, whoever that might be, in the next presidential election in 2000.
"He wants someone who is not in competition with the president," Berezovsky said of Yeltsin's support for Kiriyenko. "This is a long-standing Russian tradition. We prefer people who are not famous to those who are."
Another member of the influential business clique, Vladimir I. Shcherbakov of the Business Round Table that unites Russia's financial oligarchy, described Kiriyenko as "sufficiently smart and a quick study" but made clear that he is reluctant to see Chernomyrdin edged out of the presidential race.
"Chernomyrdin definitely possessed great moral authority," the financier argued. Government ministers and regional governors "would obey him whether they agreed with him or not. I don't think this will be the case now."
Nemtsov is expected to be reappointed as first deputy prime minister, a post that is theoretically subservient to Kiriyenko's but in reality is more influential by virtue of Nemtsov's standing in the Kremlin inner circle. Nemtsov would continue to work with the Kremlin administrative staff to direct government affairs according to the president's wishes, while Kiriyenko serves as figurehead and potential fall guy.
The byzantine peculiarities of Russia's power structure were apparent in Nemtsov's praise of the move nominating Kiriyenko, whom he obviously considers no threat to his own political future.
Yeltsin's choice "was a very good decision, absolutely expected," a confident Nemtsov told the Interfax news agency.
Meanwhile, Yeltsin signed the controversial 1998 budget into law just before announcing his prime ministerial nomination--a sop to the Duma, which had refused to endorse Yeltsin's version because it mandated social spending cuts.
This year's budget allows far higher deficit spending than called for in Yeltsin's original draft. But Yeltsin and his would-be prime minister hinted that the Kremlin might have to tighten its belt in the course of seating a new Cabinet.
Kiriyenko has agreed to halve the number of ministers in the bloated Cabinet, the Itar-Tass news agency reported. But Kiriyenko declined to discuss his plans until the Duma votes on his nomination.