Russian premier finds his role to be limited in Yeltsin Cabinet

Finance minister's departure shows Stepashin unable to set own course

May 29, 1999|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Loyalty to Boris N. Yeltsin exacts its toll, as Russia's new prime minster, Sergei Stepashin, has been finding out. Stepashin may be in charge of the Cabinet, as he felt it necessary to point out earlier this week, but that doesn't mean he has much of a say in how it's put together.

Stepashin has been burdened by Yeltsin with a deputy premier, Nikolai Aksyonenko, who acts as though he didn't hear the "deputy" part when he was offered the job. The other deputy premier, Mikhail Zadornov, was Stepashin's man, and the thinking was he might balance Aksyonenko.

But when Zadornov insisted that he also keep his old post of finance minister so that he could have some influence in trying to pull Russia out of its economic woes, Yeltsin's Kremlin told him to think again. Last night Zadornov quit.

"My stance is that the Finance Ministry should play a key role in the government," he said afterward, and that to be successful the government needs a "`unified economic bloc."

"Unfortunately, my position did not find support from the president or his administration staff," he said, "and today I tell you that I have to resign."

The move may not have plunged Russia into a searing political crisis, but it graphically demonstrated Stepashin's inability to plot his own course. The previous prime minster, Yevgeny M. Primakov, was forced on Yeltsin at a time of crisis last September and had a free hand in picking his Cabinet -- at least until Yeltsin roused himself two weeks ago and fired Primakov.

Stepashin, named in large part because of his long personal loyalty to the president, is now learning just how binding that tie can be.

With only a year to go in Yeltsin's term, that might not matter so much, except that Russia is still facing extraordinary economic pressure and will have to adopt some distinctly unpopular measures if it is to qualify for additional help from the International Monetary Fund. Zadornov, formerly a member of the liberal Yabloko bloc in parliament, had won a fair amount of respect for his work in the two previous Cabinets.

The man Yeltsin reportedly wants to name as new finance minister -- in fact was reported to have named earlier this week -- is Mikhail Kasyanov, Zadornov's deputy. He has been in London, reportedly telling the holders of old Soviet-era debt that Russia is unlikely to meet a payment due Wednesday.

Kasyanov himself has not come in for criticism, but the move is widely believed to be designed to allow Aksyonenko a free hand. Aksyonenko, who had been head of the Railways Ministry, was described until a few days ago as a figure in the pocket of Boris Berezovsky, the financier who never seems far from the Yeltsin family dealings.

But Moscow newspapers have suddenly decided that Aksyonenko represents not Berezovsky so much as Roman Abramovich, an elusive tycoon who heads the Sibneft oil company and is now reported to have even greater control over Yeltsin than Berezovsky does. Yesterday Sibneft was granted a larger share of Russia's stake in the Iraqi oil-for-food program; the critics were not surprised.

"Political initiative is in the hands of the Kremlin, in the hands of the president's close entourage," Vyacheslav Nikonov, of the Polity Foundation, said in a television interview earlier this week. "They certainly will build all power structures, including the Cabinet, so as to consolidate to the maximum their control of law-enforcement agencies, financial flows and natural monopolies on the eve of elections.

"Stepashin's hands and legs are tied."

Yeltsin's close family and advisers are seen to be moving to ensure their grip on power, with an eye toward securing their freedom from prosecution when Yeltsin leaves office next year. What's good for Yeltsin, the critics say, has less and less to do with what's good for Russia.

"This situation is a painful blow to the whole country and the new prime minister," Boris Nemtsov, leader of the Young Russia movement, said last night when he learned of Zadornov's resignation. "It is hard for me to give any advice to Stepashin, but if I were him I would have resigned."

Pub Date: 5/29/99

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