Moscow, 14 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- One day after the Kremlin's abrupt sacking of the third prime minister in 15 months, Russia's lower house of parliament began impeachment hearings against President Boris Yeltsin yesterday. At the same time, Sergei Stepashin, the Kremlin loyalist picked by Yeltsin to replace Yevegeny Primakov as prime minister, started consultations with State Duma faction leaders in an attempt to gather support for his candidature.
Most Duma deputies say that Stepashin will face an uphill battle to win approval. Some liken him to another candidate who was suddenly proposed to the Duma last year by Yeltsin, Sergei Kiriyenko. But Kiriyenko was eventually approved by the Duma, while Stepashin is regarded as unlikely to gain the necessary support.
The Duma is scheduled to vote on five impeachment charges against Yeltsin on Saturday and is set to examine Stepashin's candidature for the first time next Wednesday.
Both votes are critical, but deputies in the communist- and nationalist-dominated Duma made a point yesterday of showing that a vote on Stepashin comes clearly second in their list of priorities.
Valentin Kuptsov, the deputy leader of the communist group, told NTV commercial television that Stepashin's candidacy "does not have much chance of being approved." He added that his group would meet Stepashin, but not this week.
A vote on the prime minister requires a simple majority, 226 votes, for passage, while an impeachment vote requires at least 300 votes in the 450-strong Duma.
The leader of the centrist Our Home Is Russia parliamentary group, Vladimir Ryzhkov, also said that Stepashin's chances are "rather slim."
But deputies belonging to political parties close to the so-called "young reformers" camp say that, if the Kremlin puts sufficient effort into lobbying for Stepashin, a positive outcome should not be excluded. These deputies opposed Primakov's policies and now support Yeltsin's decision to fire him,
Regional leaders, although far from demonstrating enthusiasm for the Kremlin move, so far have refrained from harshly condemning Yeltsin. The daily "Vremya-MN" said yesterday that one reason for their attitude could be that the president has chosen "a position of force, but within the framework of his [constitutional] powers."
The influential Tatarstan president, Mintimer Shaimiev, who was quoted by the newspaper, seemed to criticize the Duma more than the Kremlin. He warned that "the impeachment [attempt] against the president could end up in the impeachment of those who initiated the procedure."
But Shaimiev, who reportedly praised the choice of Stepashin, acknowledged that "it will be extremely hard for Boris Yeltsin's team to carry Stepashin's candidacy through the Duma."
Stepashin has spent almost his entire career in Russian and Soviet security organs. That might help to reassure Duma deputies who often speak about the necessity for reinforcing law and order. What are the differences between former spy-master and foreign minister Primakov and former spy-master and interior minister Stepashin? Mainly, two factors: age and loyalty.
The 69-year-old Primakov is essentially a survivor of the Soviet-era who has been unable to change, despite being offered a chance to do so as premier. The 47-year-old Stepashin is known for having openly sided with Yeltsin since 1993, when Supreme Soviet legislators were locked in a power struggle with the President. The fight led to the shelling of the Supreme Soviet building. Stepashin was then the chairman of the Supreme Soviet's defense and security committee.
His loyalty to Yeltsin led to his appointment as head of the Federal Counterintelligence Service (FSK) in 1994. In an attempt to modernize the security services, Stepashin managed to convince Yeltsin to transform the FSK into the current Federal Security Bureau. This helped him gain sympathy from reform-minded politicians. But Stepashin is also one of the security officials who helped drag Russia into the bloody Chechen conflict of 1994 to 1996. He was also among the organizers of a failed attempt to overthrow Chechen leader Dzhokhar Dudayev.
Still, the fact that Stepashin resigned from his security post after the humiliating 1995 hostage crisis in the southern Russian city of Budennovsk, is seen by some as positive. Tatarstan leader Shaimiev praised him and Anatoly Chubais, Russia's best-known "young reformer," described him in interviews with CNN and Reuters as a "real democrat, a Saint Petersburg intellectual and a very educated and cultured person."
For many anti-reform Duma deputies, however, a recommendation from Chubais hardly plays in Stepashin's favor. Known as a master of Kremlin intrigue, Chubais has hinted that he advised Yeltsin on scenarios for firing Primakov.