The naming of Sergei Stepashin as acting Russian prime minister is undoubtedly a significant event for the North Caucasus regions. Stepashin was one of the main initiators of the introduction of Russian troops into Chechnya in 1994. At that time, Stepashin headed the Federal Counter-Intelligence Service (since renamed the Federal Security Service). The war took the lives of an estimated 100,000 civilians. Stepashin’s accession thus puts the Chechen authorities in an awkward position. Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov will now not be able to argue that the head of the Russian government was not involved in the Chechen conflict, as he was able to do when Sergei Kirienko and Yevgeny Primakov headed the cabinet. It is possible that Stepashin’s appointment means that the Kremlin is again inclined to handle the Chechen problem with military force. About a month ago, when Stepashin was still interior minister, he worked for closing off the border between Russia and Chechnya, and, recently, on the eve of the meeting between President Boris Yeltsin and Maskhadov, Stepashin ordered a training exercise of Interior Ministry troops on the territory of Stavropol and Dagestan, which borders Chechnya (NTV, May 11).
Stepashin’s appointment obviously worries the leaders of Russia’s North Caucasus republics, who fear that any escalation of tension in Chechnya will inevitably destabilize the situation in their republics. It is worth noting that Yevgeny Primakov’s appointment as prime minister was strongly supported in the North Caucasus. Mukhu Aliev, chairman of Dagestan’s People’s Assembly, already said he is dismayed by Primakov’s firing; he also noted that Stepashin “is inferior to Primakov in terms of [his] level of preparation for such work.” North Ossetian President Aleksandr Dzasokhov has generally had normal working relations with Stepashin. Yet in Vladikavkaz, the North Ossetian capital, they are sill waiting for the Interior Ministry to solve the case of the terrorist bombing of the central market there, which took place almost two months ago and killed more than fifty people.
Ingushetian President Ruslan Aushev, meanwhile, is known to have close relations with Stepashin. According to some reports, Aushev has agreed to allow Russian Interior Ministry troops to be stationed in Ingushetia, along its border with Chechnya. Aushev, however, remains a strong opponent of the blockade of Chechnya, even despite the fact that Ingushetian police continue to fall victim to bandit raids launched from Chechnya (Nezavisimaya gazeta, May 13).
LATVIAN GOVERNMENT FACES ANOTHER TEST OF ITS VIABILITY.