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Jewish Politicians Promoted in Russian Cabinet Reshuffle

March 19, 1997
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Russian Jews are praising President Boris Yeltsin for giving Russia’s stalled market reforms a decided boost with the appointment of several reform-minded liberals to key posts in his new government.

“That’s exactly what Yeltsin promised us” during last year’s presidential campaign, said Yakov Rovner, a 54-year-old Moscow engineer.

“Yeltsin brought in young liberals and swept out those who have obviously struggled against reforms,” he said of Yeltsin’s dramatic reshuffling of top government posts this week.

Yeltsin’s decision to appoint Boris Nemtsov, a liberal regional governor, as first deputy prime minister is seen by many as the most notable change in the Cabinet, one that may result in decisive steps to solve Russia’s major social and economic ills.

Nemtsov, who is Jewish, was named one of two first deputies to Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, a position that will place him in charge of social welfare programs and a broad range of economic issues.

“This is a very good choice,” Alexander Osovtsov, executive vice president of the Russian Jewish Congress, said of Nemtsov’s appointment. “Nemtsov is clearly a smart and energetic politician.”

Yeltsin has long viewed Nemtsov as his potential successor in the next presidential election, which will take place in the year 2000.

Political experts view Nemtsov, 37, as a leading contender against hard-liner Alexander Lebed, the retired general and former Yeltsin aide who has been actively campaigning to win the next election.

Nemtsov’s success in that election will “depend on his success as a member of the Cabinet,” said Osovtsov.

Two other high-ranking Jewish politicians were affected by this week’s Cabinet reshuffle.

Yakov Urinson, 52, was promoted from deputy economics minister to head the ministry and to become deputy prime minister. Finance Minister Alexander Livshitz was demoted.

Nemtsov, governor of the Nizhny Novgorod region in central Russia, is known as one of the country’s leading reformist politicians. During his tenure as governor, he managed to turn the region, whose industry was once devoted entirely to military production, into the nation’s foremost practitioner of market reforms.

In the West, Nemtsov is probably best remembered for throwing a glass of orange juice on ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky during a televised debate two years ago.

As first deputy premier, Nemtsov will have to deal largely with solving Russia’s non-payment crisis.

The state owes its citizens more than $9 billion in delayed wages and pensions — a situation that prompted Yeltsin to announce last week that he would institute a major government reshuffle.

As regional governor, Nemtsov was supportive of minority groups in both the region and city of Nizhny Novgorod.

His support extended to local Jewish organizations, said Susanna Turayeva, an activist in Nizhny Novgorod’s Jewish community.

With a population of more than 1 million, the Volga River city is one of very few in Russia where the local government regularly contributes funds for the cultural needs of local minorities.

“It is sad that he is leaving” his governor’s post, said Turayeva. “He has done a lot for his city and region.”

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