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Russia: Federation Council Meets Stepashin

Moscow, 17 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Today's extraordinary meeting of Russia's upper house of parliament, which was requested by a number of pro-Communist senators, had a focus much different from the one originally expected.

Regional leaders last week called for a discussion in the Federation Council of the political turmoil created by President Boris Yeltsin's firing of the government of Yevgeny Primakov, including fears over a possible constitutional crisis.

That all changed after the lower house, the State Duma, failed on Saturday to gather the required 300 votes to start impeachment proceedings on any of five charges against Yeltsin. The charge expected to get the widest Duma support -- over the Kremlin's start of the war against breakaway Chechnya in 1994 -- mustered only 283 votes.

Expressing the feelings of many colleagues in the Federation Council, Novgorod governor Mikhail Prusak said in televised remarks that, after the failure of the impeachment bid, "today's meeting is senseless."

However, the senators' reaction to acting Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin, who took part in the Federation Council meeting, is seen as an important signal for the Duma, ahead of the first of three possible votes on the prime minister's confirmation in the lower house, expected Wednesday. The upper house has n-o say in approving a prime minister, but some Duma leaders have indicated they are interested in the opinion of the senators.

A number of powerful regional bosses met Stepashin after the failed impeachment vote yesterday. Most seemed satisfied with the acting prime minister's proposals on a new government.

Kemerovo governor Aman Tuleyev, Sverdlovsk governor Eduard Rossel and Moscow's powerful Mayor Yuri Luzhkov were quoted by Russian news agencies as predicting quick approval for Stepashin. Luzhkov said that, if legislators fail to approve him, "prospects would then be gloomy."

Stepashin, who already met with some Duma faction leaders last week, is clearly trying to send a reassuring message on the composition of the cabinet and at the same time avoid comment on controversial matters of economic policy.

Stepashin also met with members of the "Russian regions" faction in the Duma earlier today. In what deputies interpreted as a sign of continuity from Primakov, Stepashin was accompanied by acting Deputy Prime Minister Valentina Matvienko. She was responsible for social issues in the Primakov government and is credited with improving the situation with the payment of delayed salaries and pensions.

Stepashin, in remarks to the deputies, promised continuity:

"When we talk about the prolongation of the course of Primakov's cabinet, we probably should not put under question the continuity of the course.... We should focus on carrying out Primakov's course in terms of guaranteeing stability -- political in the first place -- to our society. This, of course, will be done. Personnel issues will clearly depend on this. Today in the Duma and tomorrow, during the meeting with parliamentary factions, we probably won't talk about personnel changes and proposals. I believe the issue of who should be the next prime minister should be decided first. Then, consultations [on a cabinet] will start, following the usual practice, even if there are already proposals from some Duma factions.

Stepashin added that he was "in favor of a coalition government" in which "people know their place and their job" and are "independent of party and ideological considerations".

Stepashin needs at least 226 Duma votes to be approved in the 450-seat lower house.

According to the Russian Constitution, if the Duma refuses three times to approve a presidential nominee, the president must dissolve the house and call early elections, which have to take place within three months.

The president also has the right to change the name of his nominee after a negative vote. This factor, according to many observers, could play a role on Wednesday. Many deputies believe that the real reason behind Primakov's sacking is the Kremlin's intention to create a situation in which deputies refuse to approve a prime minister-nominee three times and Yeltsin can constitutionally dissolve the house. Thus, they may decide to back Stepashin rather than risk the possibility that a less acceptable choice might follow.

Other possible candidates mentioned in press speculation include acting deputy Prime Minister Nikolai Aksenenko -- who is considered close to controversial businessman Boris Berezovsky -- or the head of electricity monopoly Unified Energy Systems, Anatoly Chubais.

Chubais, a leader of the so-called group of "young reformers," is widely disliked by Duma members.

Another possible Kremlin candidate for the post of prime minister could be Viktor Chernomyrdin, whom Yeltsin recently called back to political activity as his envoy on the Kosovo crisis. Chernomyrdin had been in a political limbo for months, after Yeltsin sacked him last March and the Duma refused to approve him as prime minister in the aftermath of the August financial meltdown.

Chernomyrdin last week called for the Duma's dissolution and even for a ban of the Communist Party. The proposal of his candidature, or that of Chubais, would clearly mean that the Kremlin is willing to disband parliament.

Zyuganov says that the Communist Party "is not afraid of early elections." However, other deputies do not seem so defiant. Some parties, like Luzhkov's "Fatherland", were registered only at the end of last year and could not directly participate in early elections, which reportedly could take place in September.

According to Oleg Morozov, leader of "Russian Regions" and close to Luzhkov, Stepashin has a chance of being approved in a first vote.

"I do not think it will be easy. In any case it will be difficult for Stepashin, but there are some chances, because the question on whether deputies will carry out their campaigns under positive circumstances is in balance. [I mean will they campaign] with their mandates in tact, with telephones, with cars, or will they have to campaign as somebody coming from the street. This is a rather important issue."

The Duma's Saturday votes on impeachment show the difficulty of predicting what the body will do. The communist-proposed impeachment bid did not muster the required 300 votes mainly because only 348 deputies took part in the open vote. Hours before the vote, the leader of the moderate "Yabloko" faction, Grigory Yavlinsky, told journalists that its rules allowed deputies either to vote in favor of impeachment on the Chechnya count, or to avoid taking part. NTV commercial television, making public the list and the pictures of the deputies who had failed to vote, said that 5 of the 46 Yabloko deputies had decided to avoid voting on all charges. The only faction where all members voted in favor of impeachment on all five charges was the 35-strong "Agrarian" faction composed of communist allies.

Altogether, more than 90 deputies failed to show up for the ballot.

An irate Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov warned after the vote that those who "betrayed" expectations "will pay with their careers" at the next parliamentary elections.

Anti-Yeltsin demonstrators outside and inside the State Duma were shocked at the result. Many reacted by shouting "shame on you" as deputies departed.