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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Appointment Surprises Acting Premier

Sergei Kiriyenko expressed surprise Monday at his appointment as acting prime minister, but pledged to tackle key tasks facing the government in the wake of President Boris Yeltsin's Cabinet upset.

Formerly Russia's fuel and energy minister, the little-known Kiriyenko is charged with drafting a list of candidates to fill the vacant Cabinet and running Russia's daily operations in place of Viktor Chernomyrdin, who was dismissed from the prime minister's post Monday.

"I understand that today's events have been surprising to many," Kiriyenko, 35, said at a news conference. "To a greater extent they have been surprising to me."

He promised to fulfill without delay the 12 key tasks Yeltsin assigned the government in his state-of-the-nation address last month.

Among the issues demanding his attention this week, Kiriyenko said, are paying wage and pension arrears, deciding the fate of requested tax breaks to the oil industry, and drafting a plan for the growth of Russia's coal industry.

These problems "can't wait one more second -- they must be solved this week," Kiriyenko said.

The acting prime minister said he would discuss candidates for government posts with a "wide circle of people" from Russia's political parties and regions. But he stressed that final approval of candidates rests with Yeltsin.

"The most important thing for me is professionalism," Kiriyenko said. "A person must be chosen who is suited to the tasks to the maximum extent."

Kiriyenko was careful not to comment on the fate of Chernomyrdin or the first deputy prime ministers, Anatoly Chubais and Boris Nemtsov.

The acting prime minister did give a "high evaluation" of Chernomyrdin's work, adding that he had learned a great deal from him. For a brief period early this year, Gazprom veteran Chernomyrdin oversaw Kiriyenko's work in the energy sector.

"I look at this person with great admiration. I have learned much from him and we have worked together well," Kiriyenko said.

He also worked closely with Nemtsov as his deputy in the Fuel and Energy Ministry.

Kiriyenko would not comment on his chances for remaining in the post, saying that, too, is up to the president.

Political figures were divided on Kiriyenko's prospects. While Yeltsin spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky said on NTV television that Kiriyenko is "the strongest and most real candidate." Reuters quoted Grigory Yavlinsky, head of the parliamentary Yabloko faction, as saying the State Duma, parliament's lower house, is unlikely to approve Kiriyenko's candidacy.

Political analysts said Yeltsin chose Kiriyenko as acting prime minister largely because he won't ruffle political feathers.

"He is a person who can distance himself from Nemtsov and establish his own government," said Andrei Kortunov of the Russian Science Foundation. "And Yeltsin needed someone who will be a neutral figure with the Duma."

Another political watcher saw Kiriyenko's temporary appointment as a de facto endorsement for the permanent post.

"If he is taking these bold steps to install new people, then in reality he will wield a great deal of power," said Yury Korgunyuk, head of the political department at the INDEM think tank.

Since he joined the Fuel and Energy Ministry in March 1997 as first deputy minister and took over as minister last November, Kiriyenko has worked to balance the interests of the industry and the government, oil analysts said.

Kiriyenko has been a proponent of tax reform in the oil industry and has pushed ahead with plans for the privatization of Rosneft, said Alexei Cokin, an oil analyst with MFK Renaissance.

"He has done nothing that could be considered a sharp change," Cokin said.