Russian parliament OKs Putin as prime minister

Premier's chief task may be to try to split bloc opposing Yeltsin

August 17, 1999|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- The news that Russia had a new prime minister was buried a full seven minutes into yesterday's evening newscast.

Vladimir V. Putin's confirmation by the lower house of parliament was so thoroughly expected, and so widely believed to herald little in the way of real change, that it couldn't begin to compete with fresh reports from the fighting in southern Dagestan between Russian troops and Islamic rebels.

Putin looks sterner and speaks more sharply than his predecessor, Sergei V. Stepashin, but members of the decisive lower house of parliament have refused to be drawn into a fight over his nomination. The members of the State Duma are so weary of President Boris N. Yeltsin's hiring and firing of prime ministers that they hardly bother to make an issue of it any longer -- especially because in past showdowns with the Kremlin they generally lost.

"There's no evidence that Putin will work any better than Stepashin," said Oleg Morozov, head of the People's Power faction in the Duma. Even as most deputies agreed with him, they voted to confirm the new man, 233-84, giving Putin seven more votes than he needed.

Putin, a 46-year-old former KGB officer, thus became Russia's fifth prime minister in less than two years. He gave a tough speech about re-establishing order and discipline in Russia. (Word was put out that the speech was designed to make him sound like Yuri Andropov, another former KGB chief who once ran the Soviet Union.) He vowed that the uprising by Chechen militants in western Dagestan would be contained without recourse to extraordinary measures.

But even as he tries to hold Russia together, Putin's chief task could be to try to drive Yeltsin's increasingly solid opposition apart.

Since early August, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov's Fatherland movement has joined forces with the All Russia group of regional leaders, and in a news conference scheduled for today, former Prime Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov is expected to announce that he will come on board to take one of the coalition's three top positions.

That would create a formidable opposition bloc, one that carries considerably more clout than the Communist or nationalist foes Yeltsin has faced in the past. Primakov -- gray, stolid, a man from the old school who favors hierarchy over democracy -- is Russia's most popular politician. He took over as premier after the economic collapse a year ago and managed to avoid the general catastrophe that seemed inevitable. A jealous Yeltsin fired him in March.

Luzhkov may be Russia's most active, do-it-now politician. Resentment against Moscow runs deep in the hinterlands, but everyone can see that he has strong-armed Russia's capital into being a cleaner, livelier and gaudier place than it was before he took over.

The regional leaders -- prominent among them are Vladimir Yakovlev of St. Petersburg and Mintimer Shaimiyev of Tatarstan -- are not well known outside their areas but carry plenty of influence within them, and have not been burdened by excessive amounts of ideology along the way.

With parliamentary elections set for Dec. 19, and presidential elections six months after, the Fatherland-All Russia-Primakov alliance is taking shape as the pre-eminent bloc -- if it can stick together.

That's where Putin comes in.

The general belief in Moscow is that Yeltsin fired Stepashin because he didn't think the former prime minister was tough enough to keep the new opposition coalition from forming. Stepashin and Putin are KGB men from St. Petersburg, and about the same age, but Putin, unlike Stepashin, has shown himself to be a fighter in the internecine warfare of St. Petersburg politics. He was on the losing side when Yakovlev rose to power, but Yeltsin might be figuring that Putin is more than ready to retaliate, and the prime minister's seat might be just the place from which to do so.

Putin's job, said Alexander Chechevishnikov, head of Moscow University's department for the strategic study of social systems, "is to find splits inside the coalition -- and drive wedges into it."

The Kremlin has other intrigues afoot. It has been rattling the saber against Gazprom, the giant natural gas monopoly that has generally been on Yeltsin's side in the past. Boris Berezovsky, the tycoon who is closest to Yeltsin, told the French newspaper Le Monde last week that Chairman Rem Vyakhirev should be ousted from the company. Putin said in parliament yesterday that Gazprom might need to be split in two. Two weeks ago, a Yeltsin aide named Sergei Zverev, who once worked as deputy chairman of Gazprom overseeing public information, was fired from his Kremlin post.

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