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Russia: New Prime Minister Displays Loyalty

Vladimir Putin, named Monday (August 9) as Russia's new prime minister, is not well known either in Russia or abroad. RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Floriana Fossato profiles the man currently winning the favor of Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

Moscow, 11 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Extreme loyalty to the incumbent Russian president, a solid background in the security services, and a dark sense of humor indicating a tough character -- these are the traits that Vladimir Putin, the former head of Russia's Federal Security Service and former secretary of the country's Security Council, brings to his new job.

In President Boris Yeltsin's latest surprise cabinet reshuffle, Putin was not only nominated acting prime minister. Yeltsin, apparently breaking a self-imposed silence on the hot issue of who he would like to see sitting in the presidential chair after him, even indicated that Putin would be his preferred successor. He praised Putin as the politician "able to consolidate society" and ensure the continuation of reforms.

Russia's Constitution bars Yeltsin from a third term. But several Russian politicians and members of the news media are speculating that the Kremlin is considering the possibility of postponing or canceling elections in a bid to extend the president's term. Many also allege that, most importantly for Yeltsin and his inner circle, the move would allow the present presidential team to avoid prosecution under possibly unfriendly new authorities.

Putin, who has said in the past that he is "not a politician," responded enthusiastically to the presidential call. In an interview broadcast late yesterday on NTV commercial television, Putin was asked whether he was ready to be Yeltsin's successor. He said that he certainly would be, since the president had so ordered.

"I would be absolutely wrong to say that I am not ready, if the president has already said I am."

During the interview, Putin sought to reassure Russians that his nomination would not mean sudden changes in policy. In particular, he promised that there would be "no revolutionary changes" from the economic course of the previous cabinet. He described his main task as "improving the life of the people, the population's standard of living."

Putin denied speculation his appointment presages a move to declare a state of emergency in order to cancel parliamentary elections due in December or presidential elections due next year.

"A decision of the Federation Council [is necessary to declare a state of emergency]. We have examined the possibility to declare a special regime in areas bordering Chechnya. I have already mentioned this. But [declaring] an emergency situation across the country has never been discussed. I repeat. There are no internal preconditions for this. There will be no emergency situation in the country. This is not being planned."

Despite ruling out the introduction of a state of emergency, Putin issued a harsh warning to those who might be planning some kind of unrest. In the past this has involved railroad blockades. He said those involved in similar actions in the future will end up in jail. The worsening of tensions in the Caucasus region of Dagestan over the weekend seems to have been one of several events weakening now former Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin's position in the eyes of the Russian president.

The daily "Kommersant" wrote yesterday that the removal of a former military officer, Stepashin, and the appointment of a former member of the secret service, Putin, "could signify a change of Russia's position in the Caucasus conflict."

But Stepashin had not only reportedly been accused by members of the presidential administration of being "too mild" in his handling of the situation in Dagestan. Political analysts have suggested also that Stepashin was fired because he had been unable to prevent the creation of what Russian media have called "the Kremlin's worse nightmare." This is the new bloc "Fatherland-All Russia," that potentially could boost either Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov or former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov into the presidency. Both men are reportedly deeply disliked by the Kremlin administration.

In the NTV interview Putin said that he has "businesslike relations" with Luzhkov. But he also downplayed Luzhkov's political strength. He said that "in general, any unification is a sign of weakness. If they were strong they would not join forces."

But Vladimir Lysenko, a Duma member who also sits in "Fatherland's" political council, told RFE/RL that it is Putin who has little political future. But Lysenko also expressed concern at the possibility of a state of emergency being declared.

"Putin's presidential perspectives are nil. I think Yeltsin's move has worsened the situation for Putin. Making public the name of the preferred successor one year ahead of elections either means that [Putin] will be eaten alive in the next few months or that Yeltsin has decided that all the power will go to an emergency organ and Putin would become, for instance, a dictator, without any presidential election."

A member of the centrist "Yabloko" faction in the State Duma, Viktor Sheinis, says that Putin, instead of becoming president next year, could follow the fate of Stepashin and other prime ministers dismissed by Yeltsin in the last 17 months.

Sheinis told RFE/RL that Stepashin was fired because he failed to ensure "the transfer of power to people who would guarantee a development that Yeltsin and his inner circle would consider positive." Sheinis calls this aim "the squaring of the circle," in a word, impossible. He says that Putin will have no better luck than Stepashin in securing the Kremlin's aim.