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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kiriyenko Greets Duma Challenge

The president's nominee for prime minister had just been summarily scrutinized, and rejected, by skeptical parliament deputies while the whole country watched on television at home.

But after leaving the State Duma, switching neckties from a checkered blue number to a more noble burgundy red, Sergei Kiriyenko walked into the White House press room with a noticeable bounce in his step.

"To be honest, I expected it to be slightly worse," he told journalists waiting impatiently Friday for the young new star of Russian politics.

A 35-year-old banker who only came to Moscow from the provinces last spring, Kiriyenko was an obscure technocrat in the Fuel and Energy Ministry until last month.

Then President Boris Yeltsin picked him -- some say at the spur of the moment -- for the post of prime minister, held for five years by the Duma-friendly but uninspiring Viktor Chernomyrdin.

Friday was Kiriyenko's chance to justify the president's startling decision and to shine before the Duma, parliament's lower house.

Although deputies often appeared bored by his scholarly economics lecture, he held up under pressure and got more votes than expected.

Opposition deputies looking for another ally at the head of government had warned ahead of time that Kiriyenko would fail. So the defeat was no surprise.

And as expected, Yeltsin immediately re-nominated Kiriyenko, and a second confirmation vote will be held next week. The president told deputies that Kiriyenko would be his man, through all three rounds of voting if necessary.

"He thinks quickly, and he counts well," the president said about Kiriyenko in a morning radio address that aired just as the Duma went into session. Kiriyenko had no choice but to think quickly as he handled such questions from deputies as, "Wouldn't you agree that the post of first deputy prime minister is already enough for somebody like you?"

Even if annoyed about being interrupted during a detailed speech giving his views on the economy, Kiriyenko replied without batting an eye. "I am not here to force you into anything," he said.

It was baptism by fire on the raucous parliament floor for the former fuel and energy minister. Even though Kiriyenko never lost his professorial cool, he failed to impress most of the deputies.

"He does not give the impression of a man who would attract my attention," said Nina Berdnikova, a Communist deputy.

The bespectacled and balding Kiriyenko has been described as a geek. But then, Kiriyenko told journalists after his presentation, he is not running in a popularity contest.

"It is not my goal to be liked," said Kiriyenko, his palms planted confidently on the desk.

"My goal is to work out a program, which I have done. And either my program is accepted, or it is not. But I will not work under any other conditions."

In firing Chernomyrdin's government March 23, Yeltsin indicated he was tired of his subordinates openly engaging in politics and wanted a Cabinet that would concentrate on the tasks at hand.

On Friday, Kiriyenko never once asked deputies to confirm him as prime minister. Instead, he quietly but fluently talked economic shop for 45 minutes, something rarely heard from his often tongue-tied predecessor Chernomyrdin.

And perhaps not used to such school lessons, several deputies stopped paying attention, and Speaker Gennady Seleznyov on one occasion pleaded with them not to turn their back on Kiriyenko while he was talking.

"That's rude," said Seleznyov, a Communist.

Kiriyenko said he was not fazed. "Our discussion was constructive. It's nice that we did not see emotions boil over."

Besides proving that he is well-schooled in economics, Kiriyenko showed that he is well-mannered but tough. Speaking in the White House, the main government building, he refused to criticize its former occupants over economic failures.

"I'm not going to lay the blame on the old government. After some time passes, we will realize how much was accomplished and what kinds of pitfalls were avoided over the five years," he said.

But despite being seen as completely under Yeltsin's thumb, Kiriyenko said he has concrete ideas about whom he wants appointed to his Cabinet and what he wants them to do.

"All constructive suggestions from parliament are welcome, but I am not in the trading business," Kiriyenko said. "I will not be blackmailed by parliament."