By Elena Dikun
The way Sergei Stepashin’s government was formed has demonstrated that the country today is being run, openly and cynically, by a “family politburo,” consisting of the president’s daughter Tatyana Dyachenko, his former chief of staff Valentin Yumashev, his current chief of staff Aleksandr Voloshin, and two oligarchs–Boris Berezovsky and Roman Abramovich. This group of citizens has essentially privatized the state, placing their own trusted people in key positions. Today, almost no one considers the prime minister to be an independent figure: He is just a puppet in the hands of experienced puppeteers. The ultimate objective of the Kremlin’s plan is to extend the power of the “family” beyond 2000. This is possible either by crowning the rapidly fading head of the family for a third term, or by grooming the head of a submissive government to be a “manipulable” successor. Both scenarios require the overall concentration of administrative and financial resources in the hands of the ruling group–a task in which they are in fact currently engaged.
THE QUID PRO QUO
Would Stepashin have one or two first deputies? The answer to this question would determine the future of the prime minister himself: Would he manage to function freely and autonomously, or would he always be aware of the “conductor”–as First Deputy Premier Nikolai Aksenenko is affectionately known in the White House–breathing down his neck? Former Railways Minister Aksenenko is the placeman of Boris Berezovsky and Roman Abramovich. The Kremlin originally planned to nominate him for prime minister, but at the very last moment decided on Stepashin. The first deputy premier’s authority, however, is no less powerful and wide-ranging than the prime minister’s, and in many ways even exceeds it. “Sergei Vadimovich [Stepashin] understands full well why Aksenenko has been assigned to him. The prime minister and his first deputy will have equal access to the Kremlin, but they will be going down different corridors and knocking at different doors,” one of Stepashin’s aides admitted candidly.
According to one high-ranking Kremlin official, Boris Yeltsin gave Stepashin a very warm and hearty reception after his triumphant endorsement in the Duma; not only did he congratulate Stepashin on his appointment, but he also invited Stepashin to stay to lunch. The same day, Yeltsin gave his administration a dressing-down. The president irritably told [Kremlin administration chief] Aleksandr Voloshin how well Stepashin had tamed the deputies single-handedly and without any trouble, whereas he, Voloshin, had spent months trying to get rid of Prosecutor General Skuratov. “These words did little to endear Stepashin to the president’s circle. They are jealous that the young prime minister is now Yeltsin’s favorite,” Prism’s informant observed.
This jealousy immediately made itself felt. After the enthusiastic welcome accorded Stepashin by the president, Yeltsin’s chief of staff Voloshin and image adviser Tatyana Dyachenko presented the prime minister with an apparent fait accompli: The staff roster allowed him only one first deputy–Nikolai Aksenenko. Stepashin was only able to win this round by making concessions: For the sake of a second first deputy, he dropped the plan of transferring his beloved Interior Ministry into the safe hands of one of his deputies, Vladimir Strashko or Vladimir Kolesnikov, and consented to bestowing this post on another “Berezovsky man,” Vladimir Rushailo.
The latest story making the rounds in the Kremlin and the White House is of how the president was seen off on holiday to Sochi. At the airport, shortly before Yeltsin’s flight was due to leave, Stepashin introduced him to Vladimir Rushailo, the candidate for the post of interior minister. Yeltsin listened attentively to Stepashin’s arguments, then suddenly said: “Sergei Vadimovich, you are a fine minister. You are waging the fight against crime superbly, you have sorted things out there. Carry on the good work.” Taken aback, Stepashin tried to explain: “Boris Nikolaevich, I am no longer the minister, I am the prime minister. “You can do both jobs then,” answered the president, signing the decree to appoint Rushailo.
Sergei Stepashin’s first choice, which he announced publicly, for his second first deputy was Aleksandr Zhukov, the chairman of the Duma Budget and Taxes Committee. The issue was due to be resolved at a meeting with the president in his Sochi residence. On the afternoon of May 24, Stepashin, accompanied by Voloshin, arrived at Yeltsin’s residence with the decree on Zhukov’s appointment already drawn up. But entering the president’s anteroom, Stepashin was shocked to see his deputy Nikolai Aksenenko, who was supposed to have stayed behind in Moscow to chair a scheduled meeting.
We have discovered how events unfolded. It seems that Roman Abramovich and Tatyana Dyachenko dispatched Aksenenko to Yeltsin on a secret mission. Aksenenko, having arrived before Stepashin, was rewarded with an audience with Yeltsin. For almost an hour, Aksenenko tried to persuade Yeltsin to grant him an extension of his powers, and not to endorse Zhukov’s appointment.
The talks between Yeltsin, Stepashin, Aksenenko and Voloshin continued on and off for two days. Stepashin was not left alone with Yeltsin for one minute. Eventually Yeltsin agreed that the prime minister should have a second first deputy, but under pressure from Aksenenko rejected Zhukov’s candidacy. All agreed on Finance Minister Mikhail Zadornov as a compromise figure, and agreed that on ascending to the post Zadornov should retain his finance portfolio. The appropriate decrees were signed there and then, and Stepashin informed Zadornov of his appointment. But more was to come. As soon as Stepashin had left for Moscow, the president telephoned Voloshin to say that the law prohibited combining the posts of finance minister and first deputy prime minister. The White House is convinced that Yeltsin was reminded of this subtle legal point by the members of his family who had remained in Sochi. So Voloshin proposed appointing Mikhail Kasyanov, then the deputy, as finance minister. Two hours later the decree was signed.
This decision came as a total surprise to Stepashin and Zadornov. An irate Stepashin made it quite clear that he was prepared to resign. This would have meant that all the Kremlin’s successes of the last month–the collapse of the impeachment vote in the Duma, Primakov’s dismissal and Stepashin’s triumphant appointment in the lower house–would come to nothing, and the country would be plunged into a grave political crisis. It took a great deal of persuading to convince Stepashin not to do anything rash. Mikhail Zadornov, however, was unable to come to terms with his humiliation, and tendered his resignation three days later.
The appointment of Kasyanov as finance minister over Stepashin’s head basically put an end to the idea of dividing powers between the two first deputy prime ministers. Backed by the president’s clan, Aksenenko will totally outplay the powerless and submissive Viktor Khristenko, who was appointed second first deputy prime minister.
The president’s administration now has the monopoly on the posts which oversee the major financial flows: the Pension Fund, the State Customs Committee and the Taxes and Levies Ministry. These are not just lucrative positions; they are seen in the corridors of power as bottomless election coffers. This is why the Kremlin was so unwilling to allow outsiders access to these vaults. The president’s adviser on social issues Mikhail Zurabov was “seconded” to the Pension Fund, and Abramovich’s protege Aleksandr Pochinok returned to the tax ministry. Stepashin himself, incidentally, wanted to retain the previous minister Georgy Boos, but the Kremlin made it categorically clear that this particular “taxman” was not welcome in the new government because he was deemed “Luzhkov’s man.”
While Boos’ crime was being friends with the Moscow mayor, the head of the State Customs Committee Nikolai Bordyuzha forfeited the job he had held for just over a month because of his association with disgraced Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov. The Kremlin filled the vacant spot with Roman Abramovich’s friend Mikhail Vanin, who was once fired from the customs service for serious wrongdoing.
It is also rumored that there will soon be changes at the top of the state company Rosvooruzhenie, which is to be headed by another Kremlin placeman, Aleksei Ogaraev, until recently deputy head of the president’s administration and now the deputy secretary of the Security Council; he is also an old school friend of Tatyana Dyachenko’s husband.
Informed sources claim that all ministerial candidates were required, without fail, to attend an interview with Roman Abramovich, who is described as the staff selection and placement manager for Stepashin’s government. Today Abramovich, the head of Sibneft, ranks as the number one oligarch. He is believed to fund all the expenses of the “family”–not for nothing is he known as the “treasurer”–and even eclipses Boris Berezovsky in terms of his influence on Tatyana Dyachenko.
While Abramovich is the indisputable favorite among the president’s entourage, the president himself clearly favors Stepashin. “But the president’s favor is a fickle thing,” old hands at the White House aver. Having seen four governments in one year, they instinctively feel that Sergei Stepashin will follow the route taken by Yevgeny Primakov, though “his path will be narrower and shorter.”
Indeed, Yeltsin liked Primakov too for a while. Initially, Valentin Yumashev openly spoke of Primakov as the best candidate to succeed the president. But as soon as Primakov started to believe this himself and began acting somewhat independently, the president’s liking for him vanished. The same thing could happen to Stepashin: In the prime minister’s chair, presidential ambitions can develop very rapidly. In any case, the Kremlin is still considering the option of replacing Stepashin with Aksenenko in a few months’ time.
Elena Dikun is a political columnist for “Obshchaya gazeta.”