Prime Minister Vladimir Putin met yesterday with President Boris Yeltsin to discuss the wave of bombings across Russia. Afterward he told his cabinet to be more “vigilant” and “disciplined” in fighting the “foul reptile” of terrorism, and gave them three days to draw up concrete antiterrorist measures (Russian agencies, September 16).
Despite the tough talk, however, there is little doubt that if the bombing campaign continues at its current pace, it will severely undermine Putin, whom Yeltsin appointed as prime minister in August and anointed as his heir apparent. Indeed, the more conspiratorially minded might even suspect that the Dagestan conflict and the bombing campaign could be aimed, at least in part, at undermining Putin.
Putin is also being challenged closer to home–from within his own cabinet. On September 10, while attending the Asian summit in New Zealand, Deputy Prime Minister Nikolai Aksenenko fired Dmitri Savelev, president of the state oil pipeline monopoly Transneft, replacing him with Semyon Vainshtok. Subsequently, however, Savelev’s management team barred Vainshtok from entering Transneft’s office. Yesterday, Interior Ministry special forces troops used chain saws to force their way in and install Vainshtok. Savelev, who claims his removal was illegal because the government failed to call a shareholder’s meeting to decide the issue, said yesterday that he had filed a complaint with the Prosecutor General’s Office (Russian agencies, September 16; Moscow Times, September 17).
Observers viewed Aksenenko’s firing of Savelev as part of the ongoing attempt by the Kremlin inner circle, known as the “family,” to grab control of lucrative state monopolies in the walk-up to the parliamentary vote. They are apparently being aided in this by Aksenenko and Viktor Kaluzhny, Russia’s fuel and energy minister, who, it appears, have thrown down the gauntlet by firing Savelev when Putin, their boss, was out of the country. Putin has reportedly decided that such insubordination is unacceptable and thus has demanded that Yeltsin fire both Aksenenko and Kaluzhny (Moskovsky komsomolets, September 17).
Yesterday, however, Yeltsin removed Vladimir Starostenko as railways minister and ordered Aksenenko, who previously held the post, to occupy it again while simultaneously staying on as deputy prime minister (Russian agencies, September 16). This would appear a vote of confidence in Aksenenko and a slap at Putin. It is hard to see how Putin will survive such blows to his authority while appearing unable to put an end to the terrorist bombing campaign.
It should be noted that Kremlin insider Boris Berezovsky did not support the choice of Putin–who is close to United Energy Systems chief Anatoly Chubais, a Berezovsky foe–as prime minister. Berezovsky has openly backed the idea of Krasnoyarsk Governor Aleksandr Lebed becoming Yeltsin’s successor. There have been a raft of rumors recently that Lebed might soon replace Putin, and even Yeltsin, if the president steps down before his term ends, as some are predicting.
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