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  •   Stepashin Confirmed as Russian Premier

    Russian President Boris Yeltsin (R) congratulates new Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin Wednesday. (Reuters)
    By Sharon LaFraniere
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    Thursday, May 20, 1999; Page A19

    MOSCOW, May 19 Sergei Stepashin was overwhelmingly confirmed as Russia's new prime minister today after warning legislators that the country must reverse its economic decline and growing poverty or face a criminal takeover.

    The lower house of parliament, suddenly placid after failing to impeach President Boris Yeltsin last week, voted 301 to 55, with 14 abstentions, to support Stepashin, a fierce Yeltsin loyalist whom the president nominated after dismissing Yevgeny Primakov over his handling of the economy.

    In a speech to the lower house, the State Duma, Stepashin laid out a list of Russia's economic ills: Much of the population lives below the poverty line; the government is swimming in debt; the shadow economy is almost as strong as the legal economy; economic crime and corruption are rampant; and industrial production has fallen to the point at which Russia is sometimes compared to a banana republic, rich only in raw materials.

    All Russian politicians know, Stepashin said, that there is a "high degree of probability" that criminal organizations could come to power if "resolute measures are not taken." Stepashin, who headed the Interior Ministry in Primakov's government, called for "bold" steps, but gave few specifics. He promised to name his cabinet within a week.

    Legislators offered a variety of reasons for taking just three hours to approve Yeltsin's nominee less than a week after it appeared they might impeach the president. Some said they were tired of confrontation, some feared Yeltsin might appoint someone more objectionable if Stepashin were rejected, and some declared they have been through so many prime ministers they hardly care.

    Vladimir Ryzhkov, head of Our Home is Russia, the second-largest faction in the Duma, described the mood in the house as "complete indifference." "Everyone just said, 'Go ahead, Sergei Vadimovich. Try to do something in these conditions.' That is why the voting went in such a routine way, like we were voting on a bill on apiary business."

    The vote ended a week-long political crisis provoked by Yeltsin's decision to upend the government for the third time in 14 months, citing its failure to handle economic problems. But given Yeltsin's unpredictability, several Kremlin analysts suggested there may be yet another prime minister before Yeltsin's term ends in June of next year.

    Even if Stepashin does last, it is unclear how much he can accomplish with the Duma increasingly distracted by legislative elections scheduled for December and the end of Yeltsin's reign in sight. "He is not a young genius, but he has sense, centrism, prudence, the ability to calculate -- not such bad qualities," said Igor Bunin, a political analyst. "The main problem is . . . there is no time left to change anything."

    Stepashin also must be careful not to upstage Yeltsin, who is inactive for long periods but brooks no political rivals. Many here believe Yeltsin dismissed Primakov because of his growing popularity and what the Kremlin saw as his independence.

    Stepashin is weaker politically than Primakov and not likely to develop his own power base outside the Kremlin, said Andrei Ryabov, a political analyst with the Moscow center of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace. But the same lack of eminence that makes the Kremlin comfortable with Stepashin could limit his success with the Duma, Ryabov said.

    Today, legislators wanted most to be reassured that Stepashin -- who ran Yeltsin's counterintelligence bureau and the Federal Security Service, the domestic successor to the KGB -- would not condone the use of force to quell political opposition. He promised them he would not resort to "extraordinary measures."

    "They claim, 'Look, a general has come, a strong hand. Russia is on the eve of a dictatorship.' No, I am not General Pinochet," Stepashin said, referring to former Chilean military leader Augusto Pinochet. "My name is Stepashin."

    On the economic front, the principal task facing the Duma is adoption of unpopular revenue-boosting laws recommended by the International Monetary Fund if Russia is to receive billions of dollars in new loans. The IMF is holding up $4.5 billion in loans and the World Bank $3 billion while they await evidence of economic reform here.

    On Tuesday, Stepashin insisted that the Duma adopt the economic package, but today he sounded less enthusiastic, saying he wants to review the social impact of such measures as an alcohol tax. At the same time, he proposed to increase spending, saying he wants to index state wages and pensions to inflation and to give more money to the military.

    On the Kosovo crisis, he declared: "What is happening in Yugoslavia, let us be frank, is a blow not only or largely against Yugoslavia. It is a blow against us. And conclusions should be drawn from this," he said.

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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