This week’s announcement that Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov’s Fatherland movement and All Russia, the bloc led by Tatarstan President Mintimer Shaimiev, will merge into a coalition, is undeniably a major blow to the Kremlin. What is more, it looks increasingly likely that Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin will be the fall guy–or at least one of them–for the failure of the Kremlin and the government to prevent the influential regional leaders who make up All Russia from linking up with the Kremlin inner circle’s main political enemy. A commentary published yesterday, noting the failure of the Kremlin’s last-minute attempt to insert Stepashin into the Fatherland-All Russia coalition as its leader, said that within the presidential administration more and more complaints are being aired that Stepashin “has proved weaker than he seemed to be, and that by his desire not to quarrel with any of the current political and business figures, he demonstrates excessive flexibility” (Russian agencies, August 4; see also the Monitor, August 4). A similar opinion holds that Stepashin’s ouster is now “practically inevitable,” though noting that his one possible salvation is the Kremlin fear that if he is sacked, he will immediately join up with the new Luzhkov-Shaimiev coalition, which is already heavily courting former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov. “Two ex-premiers in opposition–this is already too much” (Kommersant, August 5).
In any case, some are already naming Stepashin’s possible successors–First Deputy Prime Minister Nikolai Aksenenko, who earlier this year was reportedly the first choice of Kremlin insiders Boris Berezovsky and Yeltsin’s daughter Tatyana Dyachenko to replace Primakov as prime minister; Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, who is also said to be close to Berezovsky; and Federal Security Service Director Vladimir Putin. According to Russian agencies, Yeltsin likes Aksenenko (Russian agencies, August 4). Unnamed sources have said that “close and influential” people are going all out to convince President Boris Yeltsin to pick Putin to replace Stepashin, arguing that Putin is more decisive and enjoys the support of the “power structures”–meaning the Special Services, Interior Ministry and armed forces. Putin is supported by Anatoly Chubais, who currently heads United Energy Systems, Russia’s electricity grid (Moskovskie novosti, August 3-9). In 1996, when Chubais ran the Kremlin administration, he brought Putin from St. Petersburg to serve on his team.
The Kremlin is–still according to unnamed sources–reportedly considering plans of action to undermine the new Luzhkov-Shaimiev coalition and prevent Primakov from joining it. According to the first, hardline plan, the Kremlin would not only replace Stepashin with Putin, but dissolve the State Duma after it refused to confirm Putin as prime minister. According to the second, “softer” variant, the Kremlin is considering holding one or even two referenda. One of them, being pushed by independent State Duma deputy Nikolai Gonchar, would concern the proposed union between Russia and Belarus. The second, being pushed by former Prime Minister Sergei Kirienko, would be aimed at holding a constitutional assembly, which in turn would take up amending the constitution to make the government more independent from the president. Either of these referenda might include a question on whether an age limit should be put on the presidency–effectively disqualifying Primakov and even Luzhkov–and could be used to postpone the presidential election set for next summer (Moskovskie novosti, August 3-9).
DAMASCUS SAYS ISRAEL TRYING TO STOP RUSSIAN-SYRIAN DEFENSE COOPERATION.