Publication: Prism Volume: 5 Issue: 16

By Elena Dikun

On August 9 Russian President Boris Yeltsin named the latest candidate to succeed him: Director of the FSB and secretary of the Security Council Vladimir Putin. Yeltsin paved the way for his successor’s career move and strengthened his position by appointing him acting prime minister. Putin himself, a military man, immediately indicated his intention to run for president in 2000.

STEPASHIN’S TIME RUNS OUT Putin’s predecessor, Sergei Stepashin, was sacked without a great deal of explanation. The Kremlin had simply been unhappy with him for some time. Stepashin was accused of failing to actively challenge the Media-Most company, of being too loyal to Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and of demonstrating too much independence in general. However, information suggests that after agreeing to appoint Stepashin back in May, Yeltsin grudgingly warned him: “Do the job until September and then we’ll take it from there. If things are going well we’ll keep you on, if not we’ll replace you with someone else.” The president even named the potential successor–Nikolai Aksenenko. So at that stage the prime minister was made aware that his main political task was to consolidate the president’s active forces on the eve of the elections. It was not ruled out that Stepashin might distinguish himself in this and survive beyond the period granted him. However, the formation of the Fatherland-All Russia union demonstrated that Stepashin was not equal to the task.

In truth, this task of amassing these “strong forces” was assigned not to Stepashin alone, but also to the head of the president’s administration, Alexander Voloshin. In early May, Kremlin analysts came up with a plan to create an alternative centre for consolidation, with the government and Titov’s Voice of Russia as its main organizations. Yeltsin approved the plan and commissioned Voloshin and Stepashin to implement it.

This bloc-building work, however, never really got underway. The last meeting on the subject was held in the president’s administration in the first half of June, after which the issue was left to drift. Cooperation was seriously impeded by the developing strained relations between Voloshin and Stepashin. Witnesses say that Voloshin showed blatant contempt for Stepashin, often putting him down in public. The Kremlin could never make up its mind whether to back Stepashin or to treat him as a caretaker figure. Neither did Stepashin himself show the necessary enthusiasm for party work. He merely held a few exploratory meetings to sound things out with his predecessor Primakov. Their conversations were warm but inconsequential.

At the last minute, the day before All Russia and Fatherland joined forces, the Kremlin made a last ditch attempt to crowbar Stepashin into the movement. Voloshin met the governors from All Russia and asked them to place the prime minister at the head of their new bloc. But then Stepashin himself, realizing the futility of these efforts, called the whole thing off by stating that he would not be joining any political blocs.

YELTSIN’S INSIGHT Yeltsin, meanwhile, was convinced that a powerful center-right organization was being formed around the Kremlin to bring candidates from the ruling group to power. None of the president’s advisors had the nerve to signal him that in fact a very different coalition was gaining ground–Fatherland, All Russia and Primakov.

The first attempt to break this conspiracy of silence was undertaken by the vice president of Media-Most, Igor Malashenko. On July 30 he sent Yeltsin a detailed memo outlining the alignment of forces on the eve of the elections and requesting an audience. The letter, though, did not reach its intended recipient: Voloshin added his own resolution: “I consider such a meeting inappropriate.” On August 2 the deputy head of the administration, Sergei Zverev, made a second attempt to get through to the president. He wrote Yeltsin saying that the president’s administration had lost the political initiative and its authority, and that its actions were forcing the political forces in the country to enter into opposition to him. Voloshin fired Zverev for his initiative, but Yeltsin nonetheless discovered that the union of Fatherland and All Russia was a fait accompli. This greatly perturbed him. The following morning the president invited former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin to the Kremlin. After some prevarication, Chernomyrdin revealed the bitter truth: “They made a deal!” As soon as Chernomyrdin had gone, Yeltsin summoned Voloshin and Stepashin. Without bothering to try and find out who was most to blame, Yeltsin vented his wrath on both of them.

It was clear that there would be a price to pay: Someone–either Stepashin or Voloshin–would have to assume responsibility for the failure. Realizing the enormity of the threat hanging over him, the head of the president’s administration began to lobby for the prime minister’s dismissal. Although he was no less at fault than Stepashin, Voloshin was in a more advantageous position: He is greatly valued by the president’s image consultant Tatiana Dyachenko. She is impressed by her father’s courage, and considers him to be a “highly professional administrator.” In her assessment he is “even better than Chubais.”

Long and stormy meetings in the Kremlin followed. There was the usual line-up of protagonists: Voloshin, Dyachenko, Yumashev, Berezovsky, Abramovich. They discussed the potential new candidates for the prime ministerial post. Voloshin now had grave doubts about Aksenenko, whose hopes the president had been building up in the spring. Boris Berezovsky brought up the names of a couple of his friends–Krasnoyarsk Governor Alexander Lebed and former Security Council secretary Ivan Rybkin–but his colleagues did not back him. In the end they settled on the secret service man Putin, who the Kremlin “family” believes will not be as wishy-washy and apolitical an official as his predecessor.

Anatoly Chubais, head of Russia’s United Energy Systems, attempted to intervene in the course of events: He came out firmly against Stepashin’s removal, explaining that such reshuffles on the eve of elections would undermine the what remained of the electorate’s confidence in the current authorities. In addition to this, Chubais tried to persuade the Kremlin’s strategists that to remove the prime minister immediately after he had been promised new international credits would be tantamount to spitting in the West’s face. But no one listened.

When Stepashin managed to see Yeltsin on August 5, the decree to dismiss the government already lay on the president’s desk. It is said that Stepashin lost his temper and went on the offensive, declaring that the government was doing a good job, pensions were being paid, taxes collected and agreements reached with the IMF. Yeltsin was silenced, and granted the prime minister a short extension, allowing him to make an official trip to the Volga region. They agreed that the final decision would be made on August 9, when Stepashin would report on what he had achieved with the governors. When the day came, however, Yeltsin refused to hear Stepashin out, thanked him for his good work and advised him to make way for his successor.

PUTIN’S TOUGHNESS Having fired Stepashin, Yeltsin reassured the nation that the parliamentary and presidential elections would take place as scheduled, that there would be no emergency rule, and that even the composition of the government would not change significantly. In his first television interview, however, Stepashin’s successor promised that those seeking to destabilize the situation would be locked up.

This sounded encouraging. Given that from a legal viewpoint “destabilizer” is an even looser term than “extremist,” anyone could be assigned to this category, including political rivals who showed particular impertinence during the elections. In order to remove undesirable blocs and parties and put pressure on excessively independent leaders, it would suffice simply to send the police, tax inspectors and public prosecutors to certain carefully selected addresses.

It is no secret that the Kremlin has long been considering particularly harsh measures–including introducing a state of emergency and canceling the elections. Kremlin strategists believe that Putin is far more suitable for the role of successor-dictator than Stepashin. However, it may not come to that. The president’s closest advisers believe that the new prime minister may be the embodiment of the “firm hand” which, according to the Kremlin’s latest sociological research, Russian voters miss so much. But to match this, Putin is going to have to introduce a series of tough measures in the near future.

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