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Russian President Boris Yeltsin (R) invites First Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov for talks February 5, 1998.


This article was originally published in March of 1997. Mr. Nemtsov was shot dead in Moscow on Friday.

In the most significant shuffle in years, President Boris Yeltsin has recruited one of Russia's top young reformers for his revamped cabinet, signalling a greater pro-Western and pro-market direction for the Russian government.

Boris Nemtsov, 37, the governor of Nizhny Novgorod region east of Moscow, who became the darling of Western bankers for his aggressive privatization program, was appointed yesterday to Mr. Yeltsin's cabinet as a first deputy prime minister.

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Mr. Nemtsov and another reformer, Anatoly Chubais, 41, will be the highest-ranking lieutenants to Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin in the overhauled cabinet. They will have a clear mandate to push ahead with the much-promised market reforms that have bogged down in a swamp of bureaucratic resistance and corruption in recent years.

Mr. Nemtsov has been assigned the daunting task of restructuring Russia's powerful monopolies and reforming the housing and social sectors to make them targeted to the neediest people.

The boyish-looking English-speaking governor, who impressed Western financiers by pioneering the privatization of farmland and shops in his region, told reporters that Mr. Yeltsin has promised him "complete carte blanche" to push ahead with reforms.

That was confirmed by Mr. Yeltsin himself. "Two young men -- you and Anatoly Chubais -- create a fresh young team in the government, from scratch," the President told Mr. Nemtsov in a meeting shown on Russian television yesterday. "No one [else] has been appointed yet. All candidates to the government will be agreed with the two first deputy premiers. I will not accept anything without you."

Later in the day, Mr. Yeltsin unveiled a slimmer new cabinet, with several other reformers promoted and old-guard bureaucrats demoted. A close ally of Mr. Chubais, the privatization chief Alfred Kokh, was named one of the six deputy prime ministers.

At least five of the eight highest-ranking members of the new cabinet are reformers. Only one, interior minister Anatoly Kulikov, is considered a conservative.

Mr. Nemtsov promised the new cabinet would introduce sweeping reforms. "Dramatic changes are needed," he told reporters yesterday.

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Indeed, the Yeltsin government could be "doomed" if it fails to produce significant improvements in the next few months, Mr. Nemtsov warned.

He endorsed the Kremlin's decision to streamline the government and reduce the number of ministries. The ministry of industry, in particular, should be eliminated because it "damages the economy" by lobbying for the interests of "certain financial and industrial groups," he said.

The new cabinet, unlike previous ones, is expected to mesh together in a clearly reformist direction. Mr. Chubais and Mr. Nemtsov have worked closely together in the past, and their joint ascendancy in the new cabinet should reduce the costly internal feuding that has weakened the government.

In a further strengthening of the young reformers, Mr. Chubais has been given the job of finance minister, in addition to his duties as the supervisor of economic reform.

Another new deputy premier is Oleg Sysuyev, the reformist mayor of the city of Samara. The Kremlin's decision to recruit Mr. Nemtsov and Mr. Sysuyev for the new cabinet is a signal of the growing power of the Russian regions, which have successfully pushed for the devolution of Moscow's authority in recent years.

Mr. Yeltsin praised the regional roots of his newest lieutenant yesterday. "You are not from Moscow, not from a soiled pack of cards," he told Mr. Nemtsov.

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As a condition of accepting the cabinet job, Mr. Nemtsov obtained a guarantee that he can remain as the governor of Nizhny Novgorod region for another two years. He will commute between Moscow and his home region, splitting his time between the two jobs.

Mr. Nemtsov has built his career on his sense of pragmatism and populism. Despite the painful cost of market reforms, he has maintained a high ranking in the opinion polls in his home region. Yesterday, he demonstrated his well-tuned political antennae by making a populist pledge to get rid of the cabinet's foreign limousines.

"It is high time to stop riding in Mercedes and Rolls Royces," he told Russian television. "All officials should switch to home-produced cars. This will be one of our first decisions."

Perhaps not by coincidence, a factory in Mr. Nemtsov's home region is a leading producer of Russian limousines, and it would probably benefit from any decision to switch to domestic cars.

Mr. Nemtsov portrayed the planned reforms as an essential step to "restore order" in Russia. He vowed to remain honest, despite the pressures of Moscow politics. "I will not tell lies, I will not take bribes, and I will not steal," he said.

Three years ago, Mr. Yeltsin predicted Mr. Nemtsov would become the Russian president some day. The Russian media have described him as a "born politician." But his new cabinet post could be "suicidal" for his career, Mr. Nemtsov said yesterday. "I've written off my political future," he said.

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The crucial question for the new cabinet is whether it can resist the pressure of the industrial lobbies. The previous finance minister, Alexander Livshits, was often defeated by those lobbies when he tried to reduce subsidies and tax exemptions. "He didn't have enough power to oppose sectoral interests," said Andrei Kortunov, a political analyst in Moscow. "He was an outsider and he lacked the stature and the financial connections."

Mr. Nemtsov, for his part, has been overrated by his Western fans, but he could still produce some improvement in the government, Mr. Kortunov said. "I'm cautiously optimistic. There are new people, fresh blood, and they could give another push to reform. It's substantial -- it's more important than other changes in previous years."

The cabinet shuffle is the latest sign of Mr. Yeltsin's new energy and vigour. In another token of his feisty mood yesterday, he lashed out at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, accusing it of trying to establish a "cordon" around Russia's borders.

"I'm not worried that NATO will attack, Russia would simply hit back," he said yesterday, just three days before a summit meeting with U.S. President Bill Clinton in Helsinki. "What I am afraid of is that blockade, a blockade of Russia by the West, which we cannot allow."

Mr. Yeltsin also complained NATO is preparing for military exercises in the Black Sea, near Crimea, a region which was traditionally within Moscow's sphere of influence.

But on a conciliatory note, Mr. Yeltsin suggested Russia could reduce its nuclear arsenal in a new START-3 disarmament treaty, as long as the United States makes the same cuts.

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