Russians left wondering as Yeltsin again reshuffles

An erratic president picks ex-KGB agent Putin as new premier

A move to protect cronies?

August 10, 1999|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Reaching into the political shadows yesterday, President Boris N. Yeltsin plucked out a loyal retainer and produced him as heir to the presidency of Russia, a magisterial maneuver that required the dismissal of yet another faithful prime minister.

In a brief televised address, Yeltsin informed the nation that he was nominating Vladimir V. Putin, a little-known former KGB agent as his new prime minister and chosen successor as president.

After a short three months in office, Sergei V. Stepashin was out, the fourth prime minister in a year and a half to fall victim to a capricious president.

The news hit with the impact of a thunderbolt, then it was over, leaving those who had been struck wondering what had hit them. Stepashin, who was fired as prime minister with a shower of compliments, was perhaps most stunned of all.

"I have decided to name the person who, in my opinion, is capable of consolidating society, the person who is capable of ensuring a continuation of reforms in Russia," said Yeltsin.

Putin, he assured the nation, would rally "great Russia" in the next century after his term ends and he must step down from the presidency.

Though Yeltsin has regularly disrupted the governing process by firing prime ministers and has become so unpredictable and irascible that hardly anything he does surprises anyone, this news was astonishing.

He swept Stepashin out of the way with thanks but no explanation.

"I am confident in him," Yeltsin said of Putin. "But I also want all those who in July 2000 will come to the polling stations and make their choice to have a similar confidence in him. I think Putin will have enough time to show his worth."

Putin, 46, served the Soviet-era KGB in East Germany and has been director of its main successor, the Federal Security Service, for the past year. In March, Yeltsin appointed him secretary of the Security Council. Earlier, he was a deputy to the mayor of St. Petersburg, where he became known as the "Gray Cardinal" for getting things done quickly and out of sight.

Putin didn't hesitate to reach for the scepter being waved before him. "I will undoubtedly run for president," he told reporters.

Yeltsin spoke stiffly, mechanically, looking remote but stern.

"It's hard to explain madness," said Boris Y. Nemtsov, one of the president's long since discarded proteges who once served as a deputy prime minister.

Still, Kremlinologists tried to make sense of it.

Perhaps the serious rocket and artillery battle over the weekend in Dagestan had provoked the president, went one theory. Was Stepashin blamed for failing to prevent an uprising there by a few hundred Islamic fighters, who seized several villages?

Or was Yeltsin nervous about the political maneuvering that has been growing ever more feverish with the approach of the December parliamentary elections? Was Yeltsin expecting Stepashin to head off the alliance struck last week by the powerful mayors of Moscow and St. Petersburg, along with some of the nation's feistiest governors, which could deeply influence the elections and marginalize the president?

Had Yeltsin reverted to form, growing jealous of Stepashin's success on his recent trip to the United States? Prime Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov was sent packing in May when he grew too popular. Viktor S. Chernomyrdin set the precedent in March 1998, when he was summarily dismissed after a successful foreign foray. Sergei V. Kiriyenko, appointed because he had no political clout, got the bad news in August 1998 -- apparently because he had no political clout.

The favorite theory seemed the most sinister: Yeltsin finally had found the man to protect himself and "his family" from retribution after his term ends.

Commentators generally describe Yeltsin as a political godfather surrounded by a protective family: his younger daughter, Tatyana Dyachenko; his chief of staff, Alexander Voloshin; and financiers Boris Berezovsky and Roman Abramovich, among others. And the family, they assert, fears accusations of corruption or other wrongdoing once Yeltsin's exit leaves them unprotected.

"The family probably looked for a more reliable figure who could serve as Yeltsin's successor," said Viktor Ilyukhin, a Communist deputy in parliament, "the main thing being to preserve the very existence of the family."

Alexander Vengerovsky, an independent member of parliament, agreed. "Putin is a person who can be easily manipulated," he said. "He will serve without any attempts to pursue his own political line. If the command comes to kiss, he will; if the command comes to kill, he will not hesitate."

This theory had wide resonance, among all sorts of people.

"The purpose of this appointment is to keep those privileges which have been achieved by illegal ways," said Ilya Alankin, a 43-year-old driver.

Alankin had never heard of Putin and said it didn't matter who he was.

"The only way to change anything in this country is to remove the existing power -- democratically, of course," he said.

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