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Russia: Far Eastern Leaders Concerned, Critical Of Kremlin Reshuffle

By Russell Working and Nonna Chernyakova

Vladivostok, 10 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Boris Yeltsin's sacking of his fourth prime minister in 17 months has left many Far Eastern political leaders and residents shaking their heads.

The firing of Sergei Stepashin yesterday may even have a more concrete effect on the region, damaging the agreements Moscow had cobbled together with local officials to provide fuel and provisions for their people.

In the economically depressed Far Eastern region, 10,000 kms by rail from Moscow, the move threatens many areas that depend on federal assistance.

Alexei Bayandin, press secretary for the governor's office on Sakhalin Island, said that the move will set back the regions that must restock supplies during the summer season, when the sea is thawed. He said that now at least a month will pass before the Finance Ministry will begin paying to deliver fuel and food as part of its annual "northern delivery" program.

A month's delay could prove dangerous for areas such as Magadan, which relied on handouts from relief agencies last winter because the federal government failed to provide its usual assistance. The sea typically freezes by October.

The firing particularly aggravated officials who had flown from around the region to Vladivostok to meet with Stepashin during his July 30 trip to Vladivostok, or to negotiate fuel supplies with First Deputy Prime Minister Nikolai Aksyonenko, who visited the city July 1.

Bayandin lamented that regional administrations had put a lot of effort into making the new government aware of their problems. He says the sudden dismissal of Stepashin's cabinet "means that all our efforts were in vain."

Yevgeny Nazdratenko, governor of Russia's southeastern Primorye region, told the Mestnoye Vremya television program that Stepashin's departure will force his administration to renegotiate contracts with the federal government for fuel delivery in the heating season. And he says it could also endanger business deals reached in the United States during Stepashin's recent visit.

Local journalists, like many national commentators, believe the change of prime ministers is a result of behind-the-scenes intrigues caused by Yeltsin's inner circle, the so-called "family." Members of the "family" are said to be afraid that Yeltsin's successor will prosecute them for alleged corruption and graft.

People in Vladivostok told RFE/RL that Yeltsin fought for democracy during a coup d'etat in 1991 and enjoyed popularity for many years. But many added that amid Russia's economic crisis and his repeated juggling of prime ministers, he has become a laughingstock and source of danger for his own country.

The descriptions of Yeltsin on the street in Vladivostok after the news of the new reshuffle were venomous. Viktor Markin, 52, a worker on a local cargo ship, said that Yeltsin "plays with prime ministers as chess figures, and absolutely doesn't care about what is going on in the country."

Vasily Kravtsov, 43, who is unemployed, said that by the move Yeltsin increases the chances for a Communist victory in December's elections for the Duma, or lower house of the parliament. Kravtsov said that Yeltsin "screwed up democracy in our country. Now our people associate democracy with major disorder and destruction." Few knew who Vladimir Putin was and most didn't understand why Yeltsin anointed him as his designated successor.

Some people worry that appointing a Federal Security Service boss might be a first step in introducing a state of emergency and canceling free elections.

While some regional officials worried about reestablishing ties with Moscow before the heating season begins, others say they have already gotten used to getting by amid turmoil in Moscow.

Viktor Ishayev, governor of the Khabarovsk region, which borders China and the Sea of Japan, told reporters, "We'll have to keep surviving." He added that "The regions have lived on their own for a long time already."