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What's next for Russia, Kiriyenko?

Here's something you can count on in these unpredictable times when you can't count on much else:

Politicians will ditch their principles and promises in a second if it means keeping their cushy jobs and all the perks that go with them.

And I'm not talking about Washington, though this certainly applies to most of the Republicans and Democrats who make up our political class these days.

No, I'm talking about Moscow, where the Communists and right-wing nationalists who dominate Parliament suddenly got religion the other day and approved the young and inexperienced Sergei Kiriyenko as Russia's prime minister.

After rejecting Kiriyenko by wide margins in two parliamentary votes in previous weeks, Russia's legislators had their spiritual conversion Friday when they realized President Boris Yeltsin really intended to dissolve Parliament and call new elections if they did it again.

And if Yeltsin had called for new elections in the fall, the legislators knew a lot of them would lose their jobs _ and with those jobs the free apartments in Moscow, the chalets in the country, the limousines, the subsidized entertainment and the free travel overseas.

No politician _ Russian, American or otherwise _ wants to face anything so horrendous as that, much less have to go home to a place like Siberia.

So on Friday, these Communists and right-wing nationalists ditched their principles, abandoned their previous vows of "no way, no how," and voted 251-25 to approve Kiriyenko as the most powerful politician in Russia after Yeltsin himself.

So far, so good. It's comforting, somehow _ certainly a sign of stability _ to know that politicians in Moscow respond the same way they do in Washington when somebody puts their feet to the fire. These, obviously, are people with whom our Democrats and Republicans can do business.

But now that the 35-year-old Kiriyenko is safely installed as Russia's No. 2, the big question is what next? What will this political neophyte try to do? What can he do, even with Yeltsin's considerable backing, when Parliament is so obsessively against him and he doesn't have a political base of his own?

We'll probably get a hint of what Kiriyenko and Yeltsin have in mind Tuesday when the prime minister is supposed to unveil his Cabinet.

We already know Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov and Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev are staying on. Yeltsin has made that clear.

The thing to look for is whether Boris Nemtsov stays on as deputy prime minister, a job he now holds on an acting basis.

Nemtsov was Kiriyenko's boss and mentor when the two worked together in Nizhny Novgorod. Now with Kiriyenko calling the shots, all of Moscow will be watching to see if he's willing to antagonize Parliament by keeping Nemtsov around.

The reason Nemtsov's future will be such a litmus test is he's not only known as Moscow's most prominent economic and political reformer these days, but as a can-do politician who actually made things happen when he was governor of Nizhny Novgorod and Kiriyenko was his deputy.

And given the monumental problems the new government faces, a couple of can-do reformers, new to Moscow and not beholden to the old guard (except Yeltsin, if you can call him the old guard), could be exactly what's needed.

Among other things, the new administration will have to raise money to pay workers and retirees who haven't seen a government check in months. One way to do that is to collect taxes, something that hasn't happened on any consistent basis since communism collapsed.

So one of the government's first orders of business will be reforming Russia's tax code, which mandates notoriously high tax rates but provides no way to enforce them. That's why Russians _ no fools _ complain a lot about high taxes, but hardly ever seem to pay them. Getting them to do so won't be easy.

Another way the new government might save money is professionalizing Russia's military the same way most nations have done in the West. That would mean cutting it from more than 1.2-million members at present to roughly half that size and, most important, paying those who are left on time. This won't be easy either, especially with the Communists and nationalists in Parliament talking dreamily about Moscow becoming a world-class power again.

Probably toughest of all will be pushing through economic reforms, especially privatization of large state enterprises left over from the Communist era. Kiriyenko says he won't give special favors to Russia's new business tycoons, many of them ex-Communist apparatchiks, and will keep the country's notorious gangsters out of the process as well. Good luck.

Finally, the new government will no doubt come under pressure from Washington to win parliamentary approval of the pending START II nuclear weapons reduction treaty. The White House has made it clear it expects this to be done before President Clinton can go ahead with a visit to Moscow.

But with the Russian Parliament bruised and feeling shabbily used by Yeltsin and Kiriyenko last week, the betting is it won't be in any mood to please Washington any time soon.