Stepashin worked his way up from Interior soldier

Yeltsin's nominee faces tough battle for Duma's approval

May 13, 1999|By CHICAGO TRIBUNE

MOSCOW -- Sergei V. Stepashin has been referred to in the Russian press as a "rosy-cheeked hawk." Behind the boyish face lies ambition and toughness.

No doubt Stepashin, named yesterday as acting prime minister in Russia, will need a thick skin. Tapped to succeed the popular Yevgeny M. Primakov, Stepashin might have a difficult time winning confirmation in parliament.

The 47-year-old lawyer, who has longtime ties to Russian and Soviet security forces, is a Kremlin favorite. President Boris N. Yeltsin reportedly considers him one of his most loyal aides and respects the power base Stepashin has established in little more than a year as interior minister.

Russian media reported that Stepashin was viewed as a potential candidate for prime minister as early as last year. He also got along well with Primakov, one of the few members of the Kremlin team who did, by most accounts.

Kremlin support will not necessarily help Stepashin in the Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament. Leftist deputies there, who revile Yeltsin and supported Primakov, are lining up to vote against Stepashin.

"He does not have a chance," one deputy said.

Stepashin's nomination is somewhat ironic. He is associated with the so-called "war party" in the Kremlin that led Russia to begin a disastrous military campaign against separatists in Chechnya.

Stepashin's worst moment came in 1995, when he was fired after a botched attempt to rescue Russian hostages ended with a bloody defeat at the hands of Chechen rebels.

Now Yeltsin faces impeachment on several counts. The one thought to have the greatest support is that he started the war with Chechnya. Despite this, he has pushed forward Stepashin.

Like Primakov, Stepashin is not considered an expert on economic affairs. There are reports that, unlike Primakov, Stepashin will turn to market-minded reformers in forming his government if the Duma confirms him.

Democracy activists in Stepashin's former home city of St. Petersburg, some of whom know him, have praised the former chief of the Federal Security Bureau. Unlike other law-enforcement officials, who are often hostile to democracy, Stepashin has proved almost sympathetic, the activists said.

Even so, his investigators have failed to solve the fatal shooting last year of Galina Starovoitova, a Duma deputy considered a symbol of reform.

"Stepashin is a St. Petersburg intellectual, a doctor of law, a highly educated and cultured person, very rare qualities," said Anatoly B. Chubais, a former Yeltsin aide known in the West as a leading market reformer.

"He has acted very bravely in very difficult situations when his own life is at stake."

Stepashin, who is married and has a son, joined the Interior Ministry troops in 1973. He was a political worker, keeping an eye on the Soviet power structures for the Communist Party. He later taught at the ministry's academy.

During the reform period spearheaded by then-Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, Stepashin won a seat in parliament and joined the reformers pushing Gorbachev to further open the Soviet Union.

Pub Date: 5/13/99

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