Viktor Chernomyrdin, Yeltsin's stolid prime minister, dies

By Will Englund
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, November 3, 2010; 8:13 PM

MOSCOW - Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, given to startlingly apt if occasionally cock-eyed aphorisms, was a ruefully calming influence during his five years as Russian prime minister in the tumultuous 1990s.

A onetime Soviet minister who had turned Gazprom into a sprawling private company, Mr. Chernomyrdin then turned down the heat on economic reform when it looked like it would wreck the country. He died Nov. 3 at the age of 72 of undisclosed causes.

Selected by President Boris Yeltsin in 1992 to bring a bit of Russian common sense to a government that threatened to go off the rails, Mr. Chernomyrdin was afflicted with a strong streak of realism.

"We wanted to do better, but it turned out as always," he said in 1993 after the central bank botched a currency exchange plan. He wound up coining a phrase that is pithier in Russian, sums up so much of the national character and is a favorite saying here to this day.

Opponents accused Mr. Chernomyrdin of standing by as corruption began to escalate, although to nowhere near the levels it has since reached.

When the economy cratered in 1998, a coalition of Communists and liberals in the parliament refused to confirm his renomination as prime minister. Some thought of him as a barely reconstructed Soviet apparatchik, though an enormously wealthy one thanks to his stake in Gazprom.

He had come up through the ranks of the Soviet-era Ministry of Gas Industry and was naturally protective of the ministry during the Mikhail Gorbachev-era reforms of the late 1980s. He helped oversee its transformation into a state-controlled company, Gazprom, which remains a powerful and useful adjunct of the Russian government in economic and foreign affairs.

But he didn't roll back the Yeltsin reforms, either. In his own way, he recognized that there was no returning to Russia's past.

And he twice played a key role in de-escalating violent conflict. In 1995 he personally negotiated - over the phone, on live television - with Chechen militants who had seized a hospital, and he secured the release of all their hostages without bloodshed.

In 1999, as Yeltsin's special envoy to Yugoslavia, he persuaded President Slobodan Milosevic that Kosovo wasn't worth the destruction of Serbia at the hands of NATO. In a later interview with the public-television program "Frontline," he said he had also persuaded a reluctant Clinton administration to stop bombing before Serbian troops pulled out.

Viktor Stepanovich Chernomyrdin was born April 9, 1938, in Cherny Ostrog, just south of the Ural Mountains. His father was a laborer; his first job after completing school - where he was a mediocre student at best - was as a mechanic in an oil refinery, in the city of Orsk.

He joined the Communist Party at 23 and was soon involved in party work in the natural gas industry.

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