Publication: Prism Volume: 5 Issue: 10

By Elena Dikun

On May 12 Russian President Boris Yeltsin fired Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov and appointed First Vice Premier Sergei Stepashin as acting head of government. Once again the head of state has brought the political situation in the country to a head: It is now perfectly possible that the State Duma will be dissolved, given that neither the deputies nor Yeltsin have anything more to lose.


The dismissal of Primakov’s government did not really come as a shock; it had long been predicted and expected. At the end of April, after the Federation Council refused for a second time to bow to the president’s request to fire the prosecutor general, the Kremlin warned that tough measures were on the way. The head of the president’s administration, Aleksandr Voloshin, said that anyone stirring up the situation would be dealt with fully and firmly. Voloshin believes that the blame for blocking Prosecutor General Yuri Skuratov’s dismissal lies primarily with former Prime Minister Primakov, who was too half-hearted in instructing the senators which way to vote. “Yevgeny Maksimovich [Primakov] was working to his own agenda on that one,” the administration chief said.

The liberal Voloshin is an irreconcilable opponent and outspoken critic of Primakov. He sent regular memos to the president portraying the government’s actions in an extremely negative light and backing this up with relevant statistics. In particular, he accused Primakov of being unable to strike a credit deal with the International Monetary Fund, without which Russia could not avoid defaulting. But the main charge the Kremlin leveled against Primakov was that he failed to persuade the State Duma to call off the vote on impeachment, and had become too close to–almost hostage to–the left-wing opposition. “If the Duma votes to impeach the president even on one charge, there is no sense in retaining the left-wing vice premiers Yuri Maslyukov and Gennady Kulik in the government,” high-ranking Kremlin officials said prior to the May 15 impeachment vote. Given that Primakov had never indicated that he would resign if his colleagues were dismissed, these comments can be taken as a clear hint of his own impending dismissal. But despite all the warnings, the prime minister did not begin a selfless campaign against impeachment. This would have entailed breaking with the left-wing majority in the Duma, and Primakov did not have any other power base. This is why he made a rather listless attempt, for form’s sake, to dissuade the deputies from going through with their venture.

The May Day holiday was spent in tense anticipation–would the president sack the prime minister? In public Yeltsin made no attempt to conceal his growing dislike for Primakov; he made, in fact, a point of emphasizing it. First he suggested to the prime minister, in front of the television cameras, that he visit a sauna to get his bad back seen to, and then stopped acknowledging Primakov altogether. But it was not clear, up to the last minute, what Primakov’s fate would be. On the evening of May 11, the first deputy head of the president’s administration, Oleg Sysuev, told journalists that no decree had been drafted on the prime minister’s dismissal: What to do about the government would be decided after the Duma had debated the impeachment issue. There were no plans for a preemptive strike.

Kremlin specialists had warned Yeltsin about the negative consequences of firing Primakov. First, there would be total disarray in the White House for the two or three months it took to form a new government. Second, any instability would generate a rise in inflation. Third, the dismissal would break the recent political truce. But Yeltsin did not heed these prudent arguments. The decision to sack Primakov was taken on the night of May 11-12, by a very small circle of people which included, in addition to the president, Tatyana Dyachenko, Aleksandr Voloshin and Valentin Yumashev.

Why was the prime minister fired before the results of the impeachment vote were known? To all appearances, the president was so fed up with Primakov that he could no longer bear to put up with him, even for a few more weeks. Further, Yeltsin, who had been written off because of his chronic illness, wanted to show who was boss again.


Informed Kremlin sources say that there were, in fact, two draft presidential decrees to appoint an acting prime minister. The first named the minister for railways, Nikolai Aksenenko; the second–the back-up–named the first deputy prime minister and interior minister, Sergei Stepashin. The president’s closest circle had insisted on their minion Aksenenko, and the president even signed the corresponding decree, but at the last moment he was persuaded to reject the idea by Anatoly Chubais, who had rushed out to the Gorki-9 country residence. Chubais was of the opinion that appointing an unknown would destabilize the already precarious situation in the country even further. It would be more sensible on this occasion to choose the moderate and intelligent “power” minister Stepashin. The upshot was that Aksenenko was appointed first deputy prime minister.

Sergei Stepashin is totally loyal to the president and has always served him faithfully and honestly. Suffice to recall that in October 1993 Stepashin deserted his post as committee chairman of the Supreme Soviet and crossed over to the president’s side. He was appointed first deputy minister for security and was visibly supportive of Yeltsin. The Kremlin is confident that Stepashin would never embark on an independent political career without the president’s blessing. His long-standing link with Yeltsin was sealed by the war in Chechnya: Stepashin is thought to be one of its instigators. Today, General-Colonel Stepashin enjoys a deep understanding with another “power” minister loyal to the president–Security Council secretary and FSB chief Vladimir Putin. Nikolai Aksenenko is also thought to enjoy the trust of the president’s “family.” He is known as Berezovsky’s man, and there are rumors that Aksenenko has links with Berezovsky’s paymaster Roman Abramovich, head of Sibneft. As Aksenenko controls one of the largest monopolies–the railways–he is jokingly referred to as the last oligarch. The considerable financial resources under the minister’s control may prove very useful during the elections. Nothing is known of the railway minister’s political views.

Analysts note that the promotion of Stepashin and Aksenenko is a very good sign for Boris Berezovsky, whose relations with Stepashin are also cordial. It is quite possible that the “gray cardinal” will soon make his comeback in Russian politics.

What next? As it stands now, the situation is confusing: It is not even known who the key figures in the new cabinet responsible for macroeconomics and fiscal policy will be. “We will play the formation of the cabinet by ear,” said Aleksandr Voloshin. However, the impression given is that the Kremlin simply does not have any viable candidates up its sleeve to implement the new economic policy, just as there is no clear-cut plan as to what to do next. Prior to Stepashin’s confirmation by the Duma on May 19, officials from Yeltsin’s administration were saying that they wanted things to develop peacefully, that nobody wanted to dissolve the Duma. But they conceded that Stepashin’s appointment and parliament’s dissolution were not mutually exclusive. In other words, they have clearly also been preparing for a non-peaceful solution to the political crisis.

To this end, it would be possible to engineer a lawful dissolution of parliament by raising the issue of confidence in the cabinet. To achieve this, the posts of deputy prime minister would be given to figures totally unacceptable to the left-wing opposition. The name most mentioned in this connection is that of Anatoly Chubais. If the president does decide to dissolve parliament, it can be expected that other drastic measures will follow. It is no coincidence that rumors have recently been circulating in Moscow that Yeltsin is prepared simultaneously to ban the Communist Party of the Russian Federation and to abolish elections by party lists.

Elena Dikun is a political columnist for “Obshchaya gazeta.”