Political competition at the top of Russia’s government has little to do with democracy and much to do with intrigue, corruption, secrecy and lies.

So thick are the layers of deceit that even Sergei Stepashin, a 47-year-old secret policeman with no known illusions, cannot cut them through. Stepashin was confirmed as prime minister two weeks ago, the fourth man in that job in just over a year. He must have known his long-term prospects were poor, but he expected at least to be able to assemble a cabinet and get on with the business of running the government.

But Stepashin, a close associate of President Boris Yeltsin at least since 1993, has had no such opportunity. The president, or those acting in his name, blocked his choice of deputy for economic affairs, a parliamentarian who could have helped move legislation through the Duma. Instead, in a complicated series of maneuvers, the presidential forces attempted to divide authority between Mikhail Zadornov, who had served as minister of finance since November 1997, and Nikolai Aksenenko, lately railways minister and a protege of recently indicted financier Boris Berezovsky. Zadornov was to be responsible for macroeconomic policy–schmoozing the foreign creditors and perking up the national income and product accounts–while Aksenenko took care of the “real” economy: tangible goods, salable services, businesses and resources that can be taxed, subsidized or looted.

Stepashin went along with this. In his odd language, Aksenenko would be the “first first deputy prime minister” and Zadornov the “second first deputy prime minister.” Zadornov’s authority would be further constrained by the nomination of Mikhail Kasyanov to succeed him as finance minister; Zadornov had hoped to hold both positions, as his predecessor and political ally Anatoly Chubais had done throughout most of 1997.

Stepashin went along, but Zadornov balked. Mikhail Zadornov is only 36, but in the dog-years in which service to Boris Yeltsin is measured he is a grizzled veteran. Enough is enough, he said on Friday, and announced he will serve no more.

Zadornov’s resignation left a huge hole in Stepashin’s government. It also exposed in dramatic fashion the manipulation of the government, and of Stepashin, by Boris Berezovsky, his partner Roman Abramovich of Sibneft Oil, presidential daughter Tatyana Dyachenko and the other insiders whom Russians call “the collective Yeltsin.”

The balance that Yevgeny Primakov brought to the government–communists in charge of economic policy, agriculture, and the Central Bank, “reformer” Anatoly Chubais running the national electric-power monopoly, and former prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin still close to the leadership of natural-gas monopoly Gazprom–has broken down. Chubais’ colleague Yegor Gaidar says “puppetmasters” have taken over from Yeltsin and Stepashin; the newspaper “Kommersant” accuses the president of “surrender.”

If the commentators are right, the results thus far will not stand unchallenged. There is too much at stake–not just another year of all-you-can-eat at the Yeltsin café, but also the chance to control the 2000 presidential election, now only twelve months out. Berezovsky and his allies will not hold this position without a fierce and serious fight. There will be much more turmoil ahead, and Boris Yeltsin–the individual, not the collective–is too sick and confused to restore a semblance of order.