By Brian Whitmore
An enigmatic figure, Russia’s new prime minister has displayed various contradictory faces in his brief and meteoric political career. A tough-talking law enforcement officer, in the early 1990s Stepashin joined the budding pro-democracy movement in Leningrad–now St. Petersburg–eventually winning a seat in the Russian parliament. Later, as head of the KGB’s successor agency, he infuriated his old liberal allies by joining Kremlin hawks in leading the country into war in Chechnya. More recently, as justice minister, Stepashin launched reforms in Russia’s prison system and as interior minister he began an aggressive campaign against official corruption–a campaign that did not, however, extend to allies of President Boris Yeltsin, to whom Stepashin is fiercely loyal.
Now, with Stepashin occupying center stage in Russia’s political three ring circus, officials in the city where his career began are divided over what kind of prime minister he will be.
Former Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Chubais, a St. Petersburg native who has known Stepashin since the late 1980s, called him “a St. Petersburg intellectual” and “a highly educated and cultured person.” Others aren’t so sure. “When the interior minister becomes prime minister it is not quite a junta yet, but I can’t say that it bodes well for democracy,” said Anatoly Golov, a member of the liberal Yabloko party, who represents northern St. Petersburg in the State Duma.
CHECHNYA: STEPASHIN’S ALBATROSS
Prior to his nomination as prime minister, Stepashin was best known for masterminding a horribly botched an attempt to rescue 1,500 hostages taken by Chechen warlord Shamil Basaev in the southern Russian town of Budennovsk in the summer of 1995. A raid organized by Stepashin–who was then director of the Federal Security Service, the successor to the Soviet-era KGB–on the hospital where the hostages were being held left over 100 civilians dead.
Federal lawmaker Yuli Rybakov, a Soviet-era dissident artist who represents downtown St. Petersburg in the State Duma, said that Stepashin displayed an alarming lack of leadership–and competence–in that crisis. Rybakov and fellow Duma deputy and human rights advocate Sergei Kovalev traveled to Budennovsk to help negotiate the hostages’ release. When the two arrived, they were told by Stepashin’s deputies that their services were not needed.
“When Kovalev and I arrived, Stepashin’s people told us to relax, to go to bed,” said Rybakov. “They said that they had the situation under control and that negotiations were proceeding.” Early the next morning, Stepashin’s FSB forces stormed the hospital, killing several of their own men as well as dozens of hostages. Only the next day, after an angry Kovalev spoke to then Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin on the telephone, were the lawmakers given authority to negotiate. The two eventually secured the hostages’ release after Rybakov and Kovalev agreed to exchange themselves for hundreds of women and children while negotiations continued. “Stepashin betrayed us,” said Rybakov. “He showed a dangerous lack of leadership in Budennovsk. We could have resolved that crisis without bloodshed.”
The Budennovsk hostage crisis came in the midst of Russia’s disastrous war against the breakaway republic of Chechnya–a war which has become Stepashin’s albatross.
As head of Russia’s security services, Stepashin initially tried to secretly arm the local opposition to Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudaev. In November 1994 a covert operation to topple Dudaev was bungled, and fifty-eight Russian soldiers ended up as Chechen hostages–with Stepashin and other Kremlin officials disavowing them. Together with other top security and military officials–including former Defense Minister Pavel Grachev and former chief of Kremlin security Aleksandr Korzhakov–Stepashin later persuaded Yeltsin to launch a full-scale war, which ultimately claimed tens of thousands of civilian lives and left that republic devastated.
But while Russian liberals are quick to tag Grachev and Korzhakov as members of the odious “party of war,” many tend to let Stepashin off the hook. “Stepashin will never be able to erase or escape the shame of his role in the war in Chechnya,” said Ruslan Linkov, press secretary to slain federal lawmaker Galina Starovoitova and chairman of the St. Petersburg branch of Democratic Russia. “But if you look at his entire career, the positives outweigh the negatives.”
A YELTSIN LOYALIST
The one constant in Stepashin’s career over the past decade is a fierce loyalty to President Boris Yeltsin. Many suspect that the president plans to use his newly anointed favorite general to spearhead a crackdown against the Kremlin’s communist opponents–with hard-won civil liberties and the niceties of the democratic process also falling victim. “Stepashin is definitely not a Communist, but I also can’t say he is a democrat,” said local lawmaker Mikhail Amosov, leader of the Yabloko faction in the Legislative Assembly.
In a televised address following Stepashin’s appointment on May 12, Yeltsin spoke vaguely of “harsh” and “unpopular” measures Stepashin would be carrying out to deal with the “unstable” situation. On the same day, Stepashin said at a government meeting, “We have only one goal today: to advance with clear and tough market reforms.” Such talk has politicians wondering if Yeltsin isn’t planning to sacrifice democracy to push through economic reforms with authoritarian methods, along the lines of former Chilean president Augusto Pinochet. “Stepashin is no Pinochet,” said Rybakov. “Yeltsin may want him to be but this isn’t Stepashin’s style.”
Born to a military family at the Soviet military base of Port Arthur–which is today Lushun, China–Stepashin joined the Soviet Interior Ministry in the 1970s, working first as a political officer and later teaching at the Leningrad police academy, eventually earning a doctorate in history. During perestroika, Stepashin entered politics, aligning himself with Leningrad’s ascendant new democrats. In 1990, he won a seat in the Russian Supreme Soviet, taking advantage of the same anticommunist wave that propelled such first-generation democrats as Starovoitova and former St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak into the national spotlight. In the legislature, Stepashin joined Yeltsin and Starovoitova in the Democratic Russia faction, a loose grouping of Soviet-era liberals which eventually elected Yeltsin parliamentary speaker.
Stepashin was tapped to head the parliament’s national security committee, and during the attempted coup of August 1991–which ultimately landed Yeltsin in the Kremlin–Stepashin played a major role in organizing the parliament’s defense. Two years later, in October 1993, Stepashin enthusiastically backed Yeltsin’s bloody dissolution of that same parliament–of which he was still a member–which had by then turned on the president. In 1994, Yeltsin awarded Stepashin for his loyalty, naming him head of the Federal Counterintelligence Service (FSK), which in 1995 was renamed Federal Security Service (FSB). At Stepashin’s request, Yeltsin, rather than reforming and downsizing that organization, instead restored many of its KGB-era powers.
Stepashin was sacked as FSB chief in 1995 after the Budyonnovsk debacle. He returned to government in 1997 as justice minister and oversaw the transfer of the prisons system from the Interior Ministry to the Justice Ministry–a practice in keeping with European human rights standards.
A CONDITIONAL CORRUPTION FIGHTER
In April 1998, Stepashin was named interior minister, earning a reputation as a tough talker, vowing to “destroy” bandits running kidnapping rackets in the North Caucuses. He also initiated a crackdown against corrupt regional leaders. Across Russia’s far-flung provinces, over the past year teams of Interior Ministry “untouchables” loyal to Stepashin–and independent of local law enforcement bodies–have been raiding regional governments, with prominent officials being arrested in Voronezh, Magadan, Perm, Sverdlovsk and Kursk. Late last year, Stepashin also launched a high-profile campaign, called “Operation Whirlwind” in St. Petersburg, which won the moniker “Russia’s criminal capital” following the assassination of Duma deputy Starovoitova on November 20. In February, Stepashin’s campaign in his hometown met with some success when local lawmaker Yuri Shutov, an close ally of St. Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev, was arrested and charged with a series of contract murders.
As interior minister, Stepashin’s crime fighting zeal stopped at the Kremlin walls. When Prosecutor General Yury Skuratov announced he had incriminating evidence against members of Yeltsin’s inner circle–some of it apparently corroborated by Swiss Prosecutor General Carla del Ponte–Stepashin publicly cast doubt on the allegations. When Skuratov issued a warrant for the arrest of financier and Kremlin insider Boris Berezovsky, Stepashin announced that he would ignore it.
Nevertheless, in a speech on May 17 to regional leaders in the Federation Council, the upper house of the Russian parliament, Stepashin vowed to make anticorruption a cornerstone of his cabinet’s policy. “We must step up our fight against crime in Russian business affairs, both in the state and private sectors. The biggest brake on our development is theft,” said Stepashin. “Crime and corruption reduce to nothing our most noble aspirations.” However, given the hot seat he has now occupied, it is an open question whether his anticorruption drive will get off the ground.
Brian Whitmore is a political reporter and columnist who covers city politics for the “St. Petersburg Times.” He is also a doctoral candidate in the Department of Government and International Studies at the University of South Carolina.