The just-minted Russian government of Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin was badly shaken by a top-level resignation today that called into question its ability to cope with Russia's economic troubles, including foreign debts.
Stepashin's new first deputy prime minister, Mikhail Zadornov, a former finance minister respected in the West, submitted his resignation, saying Stepashin's promise that he could simultaneously retain his old finance portfolio had been rejected by President Boris Yeltsin. Zadornov's alternative -- that he could handpick the finance minister -- was also rejected.
The departure of the mustachioed 36-year-old Zadornov, a onetime legislative budget committee chief from the centrist Yabloko faction who was named deputy prime minister on Tuesday, was a clear setback for Stepashin less than two weeks after he took over from former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov.
Political analysts said that behind Zadornov's resignation was a fierce dispute among the Russian financial clans. One group led by businessman Boris Berezovsky has been pushing Yeltsin to name Berezovsky loyalists to key jobs. Another group led by electricity boss and longtime reformer Anatoly Chubais was resisting Berezovsky's choices, and backing Zadornov.
Zadornov said today that he had blocked the powerful financial "oligarchs" from trying to "pilfer" the Russian government's accounts. "It was not satisfactory for some" of the tycoons, he added. A politically well-connected lobbyist here observed: "It's really disgusting. The wolves are out -- to get all they can in the time that is left while Yeltsin is in office. And what's worse is that they don't care what anyone else thinks of them."
Adding to the sense of chaos and intrigue, Yeltsin has been largely out of public view, and there have been signs that he continues to be disoriented, and possibly ill. He unexpectedly jetted off to Sochi for a vacation and just as unexpectedly returned to Moscow in the past week. Aides have said Yeltsin is "tired," the same word they used when he was suffering from heart trouble before his 1996 bypass surgery.
The political combat has left Russia's government in a shambles. It was unclear for 24 hours who held the sensitive post of finance minister; who had been fired or hired or given the key economics bloc of issues; and whether Stepashin was indeed in charge of his own government. Stepashin, a law enforcement careerist who has no experience in economics, seemed to be backed into a corner when he opened a cabinet meeting this week protesting that "I am responsible for everything."
Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist Party leader, said, "For days nobody in the country . . . has any idea who is in charge of the key Finance Ministry." The "clans are still engaged in infighting," he added.
Zadornov's resignation "significantly weakens the government," said Grigory Yavlinsky, the Yabloko leader. "This indicates that Sergei Stepashin is not independent in forming the government and that puppeteers continue to lead the government personnel selection process."
Zadornov was part of a team that negotiated the most recent agreement with the International Monetary Fund for $4.5 billion in lending to cover Russia's obligations to the fund of the same amount this year. The fund has insisted that Russia's lower house of parliament, the State Duma, pass a series of reforms, including restructuring of the banking system, before it will release the loans. The latest confusion in the government could postpone Duma action, sending Russia closer to a possible default.