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Russia: Yeltsin Replaces Prime Minister Stepashin With Putin

By Floriana Fossato and Sophie Lambroschini

Russian President Boris Yeltsin today fired Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin and selected Federal Security Service head Vladimir Putin to be the next prime minister. RFE/RL correspondents Floriana Fossato and Sophie Lambroschini report from Moscow on the latest developments.

Moscow, 9 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed a decree this morning firing Sergei Stepashin and dissolving the fourth Russian government in 18 months, thereby throwing his country into a new political crisis.

Stepashin was appointed in May to replace Yevgeny Primakov, who lost the job after only eight months in office.

Yeltsin has named Vladimir Putin acting prime minister. Until now Putin served as head of the Federal Security Service -- the main successor to the KGB -- and also as secretary of Russia's Security Council.

Russian news agencies report that Yeltsin has sent a letter to Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznev, asking parliament to confirm Putin's nomination. The Duma is currently on its Summer recess and it is unclear when the issue will be discussed.

In televised remarks, Yeltsin also seemed to suggest that Putin is now his choice in presidential elections due next year. Yeltsin first noted "that exactly within a year there will be a presidential election." The words that followed appear to be an endorsement. But there is room for doubt whether Yeltsin was talking about Putin's role as prime minister or, possibly, as president:

"And now, I have decided to name the person, who, in my opinion, is capable of uniting society, with experience in the broadest political spectrum, who can guarantee the continuation of reforms in Russia. He can gather around him those who, in the 21st century, can reinvigorate a great Russia. The Secretary of the Security Council, the Director of the Federal Security Service, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin."

Putin himself was quoted today by Interfax as saying that he will "certainly" be a presidential candidate.

Yeltsin is barred by the Russian constitution from standing again for president. However, political analysts agree that he is determined to give his seal of approval to his successor. They say it is also clear that he does not see one of the main presidential contenders, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, as fit for the job.

Last week, Luzhkov's political movement "Fatherland" joined forces with a bloc of powerful regional governors, "All Russia." Analysts say the move increased Luzhkov's political weight and greatly concerned Kremlin officials.

Earlier today, Russian television showed a clearly emotional Stepashin informing his cabinet about Yeltsin's decision to replace him. He wished Putin luck and then said he remains loyal to Yeltsin.

"Regarding my dismissal, it is President Yeltsin's decision. It is his right as Commander-in-Chief. He is the President. I told President Yeltsin I have been, I am now, and I will be there to support him."

Stepashin then gave a review of his brief tenure and that of the cabinet, saying they had succeeded in keeping the situation in the country "under control". He noted that the ruble did not collapse as some had predicted and that his government had won respect abroad.

Stepashin then said that elections for parliament, due late this year, and for president, due in the middle of next year, must be held on schedule. He expressed confidence that this is also Yeltsin's view.

In a recent interview with the daily "Izvestya," Stepashin had said that "The heat of the struggle for power is threatening to set fire to the political arena." He went on to say that "In this event, neither the president nor the parliament will be of any use anymore." In the interview, Stepashin also warned that, quoting, "If we do not come to our senses we will lose Russia."

In the same interview Stepashin had said that his cabinet could support some forces in the new bloc of Luzhkov and regional leaders.

According to Olga Kryshtanovskaya, a political analyst at the Sociology Institute of the Russian Academy of Science, Stepashin's timid opening to the new bloc may have triggered Yeltsin's reaction.

"Stepashin was gaining authority... and the fact that several governors seemed ready to stand behind him may have meant to Yeltsin that Stepashin was about to betray him by getting closer to Luzhkov and [Tatarstan president Mintimer] Shaimiyev."

Some political analysts suggest that Yeltsin and his advisers may be considering the possibility of postponing or canceling elections. The Kremlin has denied the reports. According to Kryshtanovskaya, the latest presidential move will only add to the speculation.

"The dismissal of such a serious politician and civil servant means one thing: that the Kremlin is leaning towards non-constitutional methods in its policy-making. The appointment of Putin as prime minister strengthens these suspicions."

Meanwhile, Yeltsin today signed the decree marking the official start to the parliamentary campaign. The move allows for the official beginning of political advertising and for the registration of candidates.