Yeltsin Sacks Another Premier
By Daniel Williams
Stepashin became the fourth prime minister sacked by the erratic Yeltsin in a year and a half. Putin, a onetime KGB operative in East Germany who served more recently as deputy mayor of St. Petersburg, took office after a year as director of the Federal Security Service, Russia's domestic security agency.
The shake-up apparently was not designed to alter government policy or speed economic or social reform -- the reasons Yeltsin gave for firing previous premiers. Rather, it was an avowed attempt by the president to place his choice to succeed him in a politically advantageous position. Putin, in a television interview, said Stepashin's cabinet will stay on and offered no new new initiatives. He did say, however, that he will run for president.
The move exemplified the trap-door politics of the Yeltsin presidency. By appointing and dismissing a succession of prime ministers, Yeltsin has brought a halt to economic and political reform and deprived Russia of a steady administrative hand at a time when it desperately needs one.
Yeltsin's rivals were exasperated. Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov characterized the change as lunacy. "What we have in the Kremlin is a clinical case," he said. He suggested that the Duma, the lower house of parliament, might endorse Putin's nomination only to avoid dissolution of the legislature, which would allow Yeltsin to "get away with anything."
At the other end of the political spectrum, Boris Nemtsov, a reformist former deputy prime minister once presumed to be Yeltsin's heir, described the change as a failure of Russia's strong presidential system -- a system he said should be jettisoned.
"Otherwise," he said, "we will be hostage to the unpredictable actions . . . being exhibited by the current president, and likely by a future president."
In effect, Yeltsin's move inaugurated the presidential race with a disruptive bang. He dismissed a prime minister who had negotiated a new International Monetary Fund loan and traveled to Washington and Europe in an attempt to repair frayed relations with the Clinton administration and its NATO allies. Now, a virtual unknown is in day-to-day charge of Russia.
The new loan was granted partly because the IMF had determined that Russia's economy had stabilized, though it remains depressed. News of the Kremlin shake-up sent the Russian stock market into a sharp decline, while the exchange value of the ruble plummeted. The stock market rebounded, however, and the Central Bank intervened to limit the ruble's fall to about 3 percent.
Putin, in the television interview, emphasized the need to keep the country on an even keel because, he said, Russia faces a turbulent election season and its soldiers are battling Islamic guerrillas in Dagestan, a province in southern Russia that borders the separatist region of Chechnya. "The main problem that we have . . . is an absence of stability," he said.
The chronically ailing Yeltsin appeared stiff and puffy-faced when he went on television to inform the public of Stepashin's firing, which occurred early this morning. He made no bones about the political nature of the move, saying it had nothing to do with Stepashin, whom he praised, but rather with Yeltsin's preference in next year's presidential vote -- Putin.
"I'm convinced he will serve the nation well while working in this high post," said Yeltsin, speaking as if the words on the teleprompter were moving one at a time. "Russians will be able to appraise Putin's human and business qualities. He will have enough time to show himself. I trust him. I also hope that everyone who goes to the polls in July 2000 will have the same confidence."
It is not the first time Yeltsin has blessed an heir, but he has never done so in such a formal and emphatic fashion. Putin, 46, immediately threw his unfamiliar hat into the political ring. "I will undoubtedly run for president," he told reporters a few hours after Yeltsin spoke.
At government headquarters, Stepashin stood glumly at the head of a conference table and said goodbye to the cabinet in a televised farewell. He said Yeltsin gave him no reason for his ouster. "He thanked me for good work and fired me," he said.
Stepashin said he argued against the dismissal but acknowledged that Yeltsin acted within his rights and said he would remain loyal to the president. Finally, at a loss for words, he left the cabinet meeting abruptly, saying, "That's all."
Some newspapers reported that Yeltsin was displeased with Stepashin because he had failed to head off an electoral alliance between Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and regional governors that is trying to woo former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov -- Yeltsin fired him in April -- to run for president.
Such is the uncertain state of Russian politics that Putin's nomination initially gave rise to fears that Yeltsin was plotting to maintain his grip on power by blocking the legislative and presidential elections. Under this theory, Putin's role, as a veteran of the intelligence and security services, would be to neutralize opponents through threats of investigation and to disperse protests with police action.
But Yeltsin insisted the elections will occur as scheduled. "In a year, the first Russian president will transfer his powers to a newly elected president, for the first time in history," Yeltsin pledged. He took the opportunity to schedule balloting for the Duma for Dec. 19.
Russian observers said Putin's selection and electoral endorsement means that Yeltsin wants to guarantee himself a friendly replacement, and Putin is regarded as supremely loyal to the president.
Yeltsin, his daughter, Tatyana Dyachenko, and business tycoon Boris Berezovsky -- a longtime Yeltsin supporter -- are worried about prosecution for corruption, Russian analysts and newspapers said. Russian prosecutors, for instance, have been investigating Berezovsky's management of the funds of Aeroflot, Russia's national airline.
Russians have taken to calling Yeltsin and his entourage "The Family," a name that here, as in Sicily, connotes Mafia-style rule. The Family comprises Yeltsin; Tatyana; Berezovsky; a business associate, Roman Abramovich, and the Kremlin chief of staff, Alexander Voloshin. These days, Yeltsin's every political move is seen through the prism of Family interests.
Putin is the third prime minister in a row with an intelligence background. Primakov, who took Sergei Kiriyenko's place last August, was a former head of foreign intelligence. Primakov was replaced by Stepashin, who headed the Federal Security Service in 1994.
Now comes Putin, an uninspiring speaker with no known political program -- in short, a faceless apparatchik. One commentator called him an Andropov for the reformers -- a reference to Yuri Andropov, the KGB chief who succeeded Leonid Brezhnev as head of the Soviet Union with hopes of inaugurating limited reforms under continued Communist rule.
Yeltsin appointed Putin to an administrative post in the Kremlin in 1996. Last year, Putin took over the Federal Security Service, and, in March, the presidential Security Council, which coordinates defense and internal security policy.
Aside from the loan accord, Stepashin's summer term was lackluster. He provided no guidelines for pulling Russia out of its economic slump. Touted as a law-and-order champion, he made no moves to crack down on corruption, tax evasion or organized crime. He left virtually no mark on Russia's stalled reform process.
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