"Poor lad, they will eat him alive"

 

THE CARTOONIST of the Moscow Times portrayed Mr Boris Nemtsov, the young reformist provincial governor who joined the Russian cabinet last week, as a naked innocent in the Garden of Eden. A snake with the head of Mr Anatoly Chubais, an equally young but much more experienced mover in the Kremlin, is tempting him with an apple. How long can Mr Nemtsov stay clean and survive in the corrupt world of Moscow politics?

Russians are watching with fascination. After so many disappointments, they hardly dare hope that an honest politician has come along with the interests of ordinary people at heart. But that is what Mr Nemtsov seemed to be promising when he accepted the job of First Deputy Prime Minister in the revamped government.

"I will not lie, I will not take bribes or steal, I will explain to people everything I do, even the most unpleasant things," he said when he returned to the Volga river town of Nizhny Novgorod to tell his local voters that, against his better judgment, he had allowed President Boris Yeltsin to persuade him to make the move to national politics.

"Poor lad," said an old man in a fur hat who was filmed by Russian television on the streets of Nizhny Novgorod. "He's done a lot of good for us but they will eat him alive in the corridors of power in Moscow."

Personally, I'm not so sure about that. The darkly handsome Mr Nemtsov, only 37, who pioneered privatisation in Nizhny Novgorod and campaigned against the war in Chechnya, has shown on at least one occasion that he is perfectly capable of defending himself.

When the extreme nationalist politician, Mr Vladimir Zhirinovsky, tried to throw him off balance in a live television debate by flinging a glass of juice in his face, Mr Nemtsov had no hesitation in tossing the juice back.

It is true that Mr Nemtsov faces a thankless task in the new government and is soon likely to become very unpopular. President Yeltsin has been forced to reorganise the cabinet because the legendary patience of the Russian people is at breaking point. Back from the Helsinki summit with President Bill Clinton, the Kremlin leader will face a nationwide protest organised by the trade unions this week.

They are angry because millions of workers and pensioners have not been paid for months. This is because the government has failed to collect taxes from businessmen, including many crime godfathers who have flourished in the free for all of badly organised market reform.

The disinherited majority feel helpless. The media has reported at least two cases of top scientists committing suicide because they could not pay their staff. Television has also shown teachers donating their blood for money and fire fighters who damaged their health at Chernobyl on hunger strike for their overdue disability benefits.

Now Mr Nemtsov, together with Mr Chubais (41), also a First Deputy Prime Minister, with the added responsibility of the finance portfolio, are to try to correct the mistakes of early reforms and bring the Russian reform process to completion.

The ginger haired Mr Chubais, public enemy number one as far as the communist opposition is concerned because he was in charge of Russia's main privatisation programme, will concentrate belatedly on gathering taxes.

Posters are already plastered all over Moscow showing a yuppie, pointing with his mobile phone in the accusing manner of a war time call up officer and saying: "Have you made your tax declaration yet?" For those who have not paid, and have no intention of paying, a new tax police heavily armed, is gearing up to make arrests.

Mr Nemtsov is getting what appears to be the softer job of overseeing social policy. Actually it is a poisoned chalice. Soon he will be right up behind Mr Chubais as public enemy number two because the main outstanding reform in this area affects housing. Although Russians may now pay market prices for their food and clothes, rents and utilities are still heavily subsidised by the State. Mr Nemtsov will be the man to change this.

Thus, the money ordinary Russians should receive when Mr Chubais starts bringing in the taxes will have to be spent on higher communal charges and fuel bills when Mr Nemtsov completes his housing reform. The fresh faced boy politician will rapidly find himself being drawn as a grasping monster by the newspaper cartoonists.

If he survives, however, Mr Nemtsov could have a brilliant career ahead. Mr Yeltsin makes no secret of the fact that he regards him as "presidential material". If reforms finally succeed and ordinary Russian people get

Mr Nemtsov: likely to become public enemy number two following housing refirms the "normal life" for which they so envy us in the West, Mr Yeltsin may give his blessing to the younger man to run for the Kremlin succession in the year 2000.