Sergei Stepashin, 47, is a baby-faced, tough-talking secret policeman whose loyalty to Yeltsin has allowed his career to survive repeated and spectacular debacles. Born in Port Arthur, Manchuria, he joined the Soviet Interior Ministry (MVD) in his twenties as a political officer, rising to the rank of lieutenant general in the ministry’s own forces. He became active in the Democratic Russia movement in Leningrad in the late 1980s, building associations there with Anatoly Chubais and Vladimir Putin, among others. Elected to the Supreme Soviet in 1990, he headed the parliamentary security committee during the August 1991, attempted coup that led to the final collapse of the Soviet Union and propelled Yeltsin to power. Two years later, he strongly supported Yeltsin’s attack on the parliament, of which he was still a member.

That was a good career move, as it turned out. In 1994 Yeltsin named Stepashin head of the Federal Counterintelligence Service (now called the Federal Security Service), the successor to the domestic side of the Soviet KGB. From that position Stepashin took on and failed to meet the challenge of subduing the insurgency in Chechnya. An attempt to subvert Chechen leader Djohar Dudaev collapsed when heavily bribed Chechen soldiers turned out to be rented, not bought. That escapade ended with Dudaev parading fifty-eight captured Russian soldiers before television cameras. Worse yet was the 1995 assault on a hospital where Chechen guerrillas had taken hostages. The attack, which Stepashin organized, left over 100 civilians dead and a number of Russians killed by friendly fire, while the Chechen forces escaped with little damage.

Stepashin left office after that disaster but returned in 1997 as minister of justice, moving to the Interior Ministry in April, 1998, in the shake-up that followed the dismissal of Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin.

The new prime minister, like most Russian political figures, is a bit of a puzzle. His background says he will rely on coercion to get his way, and he will be neither subtle nor particularly effective. Anatoly Chubais calls him “a St. Petersburg intellectual” and “a highly educated and cultured person.” The Economist calls him “a skull-cracker.”

In recent months, Stepashin made headlines with threats of air strikes, “operational activities,” a full economic blockade and other “decisive and effective measures” against Chechnya to free Interior Ministry General Gennady Shpigun, abducted in Chechnya on March 5. These threats have so far proved empty, and General Shpigun remains missing, one of some 700 hostages in the hands of Chechen kidnappers.

Stepashin’s economics seem no different from his predecessor–he has no grand designs but he knows who stuffs the derma. He told the Duma last week that he will come down hard on economic crimes, illegal capital flight and corruption, but opposed a prosecutor’s warrant for the arrest of Boris Berezovsky on exactly such charges, saying publicly that he would not enforce it. (The warrant was later withdrawn.) Stepashin says he will insist on rapid action by the Duma to approve the tax increases and other measures the International Monetary Fund requires as a condition of its promised $4.5 billion loan. He also promised to pay arrears to government employees and pensioners. No doubt they will all sleep better now.