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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Premier Preeminent: A Gasman Makes Good

When he was plucked from relative obscurity and made prime minister in place of Yegor Gaidar in Dec. 1992, Viktor Chernomyrdin was viewed as a temporary solution to appease a hostile parliament.


The view that Chernomyrdin, who shared the Supreme Soviet's concerns over the fall in industrial output and living standards, was a powerless caretaker was confirmed early on. His January 1993 decree on reestablishing price controls was overruled by the new cabinet's leading market economist, Deputy Prime Minister Boris Fyodorov.


What a difference a year makes. At a blunt press conference Thursday where he announced his new, mostly handpicked cabinet, Chernomyrdin emerged as the unchallenged No. 2 politician in the country, right behind the president.


From a largely symbolic figure, the stocky ex-apparatchik from the Soviet gas ministry has hit the big leagues, managing in one week to force Gaidar from office, trump Fyodorov and outmaneuver President Boris Yeltsin himself.


While repeatedly assuring the world media that Russia would never turn back from its course toward a market economy, Chernomyrdin has declared that the era of Gaidar-style "market romanticism" is over.


After four days of wrangling over the cabinet that had, by all accounts, been extremely difficult, Chernomyrdin calmly and confidently denied that there had been any crisis.


It was a strong performance from a man whose first news conference as prime minister in December 1992 prompted comparisons to former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, both in facial appearance and his tendency to mumble when in the spotlight.


Chernomyrdin's rise began with his loyal political backing of Yeltsin throughout the president's 1993 power struggle with the former legislature. When the former Supreme Soviet tried to impeach Yeltsin in March, Chernomyrdin stood by Yeltsin's side as other former allies -- most notably the then vice president, Alexander Rutskoi -- defected to the parliament.


Despite his differences with Fyodorov over economic reforms, Chernomyrdin also stood by the reformist team when parliament tried to double its budget in July.


And when Yeltsin dissolved and later bombarded the Supreme Soviet out of existence, Chernomyrdin again displayed political loyalty, appearing on national television, banging his fist on the desk for emphasis as he ordered regional leaders to obey the president.


But Chernomyrdin shrewdly avoided the parliamentary election campaign last year, while members of his government fought as adversaries. Instead, he quietly assumed control over issuing state credits and export licenses from Gaidar, who had reentered the government as economics minister.


When Gaidar and Fyodorov's Russia's Choice party suffered a defeat at the hands of Communists and nationalists in the polls, it put Chernomyrdin, who had warned of the social consequences of radical reforms, in a position to make his move. He first attacked reformers for their responsibility in the poll results, and then called the shots on the make-up of the new government.


This is all heady stuff for Chernomyrdin, who worked his way up from a young technocrat from Orenburg in the southern Urals to head the Soviet state-owned gas company, Gazprom, from 1985. Skilled in the ways of Soviet management and career-advancement, Chernomyrdin received mixed grades from Western oilmen. When he was named a deputy prime minster in Gaidar's government in May 1992, it was seen as an attempt to appease the industrial lobby.


Although he appears a bit of a throwback in public, Chernomyrdin is a different man in private, prone to wisecracks and foul language, as overheard during one conference call with gas industry leaders during his days at Gazprom.


Although he is firmly in control of his new government, observers are skeptical about what Chernomyrdin will make of his new-found influence.