Fearful lawmakers OK Russia premier

Political crisis ends quietly as Duma meekly confirms Stepashin

May 20, 1999|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Afraid of the public, afraid of the president, afraid of chaos and afraid of losing their jobs, the members of Russia's lower house of parliament meekly confirmed Sergei V. Stepashin as Russia's new prime minister yesterday.

"I expected a lot of vicious and complex questions," Stepashin told the State Duma after winning the post with 301 votes of a possible 450. "There were practically none."

And with that, Russia's latest full-bore political crisis came to as bland an ending as anyone could have imagined. Last week's fury over impeachment of the president and his firing of Prime Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov came to nothing, and President Boris N. Yeltsin, once more, had had his way with parliament.

The realization that had struck the members of the opposition was that if they didn't approve Stepashin, the capricious Yeltsin might nominate someone they would consider substantially less appealing. Moreover, they figured, Yeltsin might be looking for a showdown with the parliament as a pretext for dissolving it. The best way to avoid that possibility was to avoid the showdown altogether.

Stepashin, a general who has been head of the Interior Ministry after a stint with the successor to the KGB, is unswervingly loyal to Yeltsin, and except for that, members of the Duma don't have much against him. But they would have good reason to fear he has something against them.

"Stepashin is not a person to play a joke on," said Alexander D. Vengerovsky, chairman of the Duma subcommittee on intelligence. "He has compromising materials practically on all of us."

Stepashin took questions from the floor before the vote yesterday, and most concerned crime and the economy and the intersection of the two. He said he wanted to move ahead on economic reform while excluding "semi-Mafiosi structures."

He also said Russia would have to find its way back into the good graces of international lenders, both through the passage of laws that the International Monetary Fund is seeking and by trying to rectify past practices under which "loans obtained with great effort are used ineffectively and often are brazenly stolen."

"I would like to stress again, dear colleagues, that what is needed is firm administrative will, and you will get it," Stepashin said.

But he promised there would be no extraordinary measures.

"Some have already associated my appointment with such things," he said. "They claim that, `Look, a general has come, a strong hand, Russia is on the eve of a dictatorship.' They even compare me with Pinochet. No, I am not General Pinochet. My surname is Stepashin."

The Duma deputies received him politely, voted him quickly into office and announced that they were looking ahead to parliamentary elections in December.

"The factions don't care who heads the Cabinet now, the main thing is the elections," said Vladimir Lysenko, a deputy from the Russian regions group. "This is a caretaker government."

The mood yesterday was in stark contrast to last September, when the opposition in parliament forced Yeltsin to appoint Primakov as prime minister. The Communists were jubilant then and began talking as though they were preparing to assume power.

But they badly botched last week's attempt to impeach Yeltsin. The prime minister, and not the president, ended up losing his job, and the weakness of the Communists and their allies became evident to all.

Yeltsin's foes were intent on impeaching him on several counts, foremost among them for his launching of what they considered an illegal war in Chechnya in 1994, in which up to 100,000 people died.

That count failed by 17 votes. Yesterday, most of those who wanted to impeach Yeltsin on the war charge turned around and voted to confirm Stepashin -- who more than any other official helped push Russia into that disastrous confrontation.

No one dwelt on the inconsistency. Instead, members were intent on not rocking the boat -- to save themselves and to spite Yeltsin.

"The principle the deputies were acting on was, `God save us from something even worse!' " said Ruslan Gostev, a Communist. "If the Duma had not approved Stepashin, the country would have gone from one political crisis into another, and it's too much for this country."

Igor L. Lukashev, a member of the liberal Yabloko faction, said that in meetings with his constituents it had become clear that the dismissal of Primakov, as popular as he was, simply was not weighing much on people's minds. There was no percentage in courting a showdown with Yeltsin over the prime minister, he suggested, because the electorate is not in the mood for such goings-on.

Today, Stepashin begins the job of forming his Cabinet. Primakov has left him with a country that defied expectations by not crumbling completely last fall with the economic collapse -- but that is still on shaky ground. Stepashin promised yesterday to get industry moving and to restore Russian agriculture, which has been devastated by imports and local mismanagement.

"Our mission is to create a fundamentally new economic context," he said, "ensuring better conditions for the life of the people and reviving the grandeur of such a powerful country as Russia."

Pub Date: 5/20/99

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