Moscow, 19 May 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Just one week after Russian President Boris Yeltsin unceremoniously fired Yevgeny Primakov, Russia has a new prime minister, the fourth within the last 14 months.
Deputies in the communist- and nationalist-dominated State Duma today voted 298 to 55 with 14 abstentions to approve the presidential nominee, Sergei Stepashin. Approval, which required support of at least 226 deputies, came on the first of a possible three votes allowed under the constitution.
Stepashin's approval follows last week's failure of a communist-led effort in the Duma to begin an impeachment process against Yeltsin.
The combined developments seem to mark a significant defeat for Yeltsin's foes in the Duma, who had earlier described Primakov as being "irreplaceable." In the end, they apparently decided that losing political face in front of the electorate was better than risking a showdown with Yeltsin.
Stepashin, a general and the interior minister in the outgoing Primakov government, addressed the Duma ahead of the vote. He said he would seek to build on the policies of his predecessor but also to go beyond them.
"Of course, it is extremely important to preserve, as a backbone, the positive experience which was successfully accumulated during the eight months of work of the previous cabinet. However, today a new, more decisive and energetic approach is necessary. Now, when the task of revival and a suitable entry into the new millennium stands before the country, partial continuity in the course of political and economic stability is no longer enough. In the very tactics of managing this course, changes have become imminent. In them there is no place for half measures and compromises."
Yeltsin was following today's events from his Kremlin office, his press service said, despite suggestions by a Spanish spokesman yesterday that the Russian president had failed to meet Spain's visiting Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar because he had bronchitis.
After his Duma speech, Stepashin reported to Yeltsin in the Kremlin. The president has already signed the decree confirming his appointment. The next step will be to determine the composition of the cabinet.
Most Russian politicians and observers said before the vote they believed that, if the Duma refused to approve Stepashin, the Kremlin most certainly would have proposed a new candidate whom deputies would have been much less likely to confirm. The goal, they explained, was to give Yeltsin a chance to dissolve the Duma as called for under the Constitution when prime ministerial nominations are rejected three times in succession.
Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov and other top deputies had defiantly said that they "were not afraid" of dissolution. However, political analysts and even some legislators said most deputies feared such a development at a moment when they are preparing for parliamentary elections due in December and need the material benefits of their mandates.
Yesterday evening, a rumor began to spread that at the last moment Yeltsin would replace Stepashin with another candidate, a possibility that seemed to alarm many deputies. The rumors spread even as it became clear Stepashin's chances of being approved were increasing and most parliamentary leaders were expressing their backing for a man described as a "law and order" candidate.
The ultra-nationalist Liberal Democratic faction of Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the Agrarians, and the radical People's Power all backed Stepashin. The centrist Our Home Is Russia and even the moderate Yabloko announced they would too.
Interfax news agency said in an analytical piece that it was unclear whether the Kremlin would really welcome Stepashin's approval, which would deprive the president of the possibility of dissolving the Duma.
A former communist deputy who is currently a member of the "Russian Regions" group, Vladimir Semago, said in comments broadcast by NTV commercial television that Stepashin was not the preferred candidate of Boris Berezovsky. The controversial businessman and Kremlin insider, along with other representatives of the so-called Russian "oligarchy," reportedly played a role in Primakov's sacking. His favorite candidate was believed to be Nikolai Aksenenko, the acting deputy prime minister.
Berezovsky, in comments reported by Interfax, said the rumors were "disinformation."
Stepashin's nomination was reportedly backed by Anatoly Chubais, a former first deputy prime minister and now head of the national electricity monopoly UES, who has close ties to other "oligarchs."
The rumors about a possible last-minute replacement of Stepashin, possibly by Aksenenko, could have been a psychological tactic to put pressure on Duma deputies to back Stepashin.
The weekly "Kommersant Vlast" said this week that the decision to sack Primakov before the impeachment vote was taken by a small group of Kremlin aides and outside strategists, including Berezovsky, Chubais, and Media-Most head Vladimir Gusinsky, who controls NTV among other assets.
The name of the candidate, said the reports, was decided later and was the subject of controversy among the oligarchs.
Approving Stepashin in its first vote, the Duma for the moment has disarmed the Kremlin. However, Russian media and Stepashin himself have already hinted that constitutional grounds for dissolving the Duma could still be found.
Stepashin said yesterday that he would seek a vote of confidence from the Duma if deputies rejected laws recommended by the International Monetary Fund. The laws, including unpopular taxes on petrol and alcohol, were agreed with the IMF by the Primakov government, but are expected to meet with stiff opposition in the Duma. The laws are part of a package of revenue-raising measures which the Fund wants adopted before it releases $4.5 billion in credits for Russia over 18 months.
According to the constitution, the prime minister can ask the Duma to hold a vote of confidence in the government at any moment. If the Duma votes against the government, the president has one week either to sack the prime minister and his government or disband the Duma.