Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 82

President Boris Yeltsin made his first substantive move against the cabinet of Yevgeny Primakov yesterday, firing First Deputy Prime Minister Vadim Gustov and replacing him with a loyalist, Interior Minister Sergei Stepashin. Primakov formally welcomed Stepashin at a cabinet meeting today, saying that the fight against crime and corruption, as well as relations with the regions, would lie on Stepashin’s “powerful shoulders” (Russian agencies, April 28). Following Gustov’s firing yesterday, cabinet spokesmen played down its significance, saying that Primakov had known about it in advance. The prime minister, however, held an emergency meeting yesterday with his deputies, after which Deputy Prime Minister Gennady Kulik said he was ready to step down, and suggested that Primakov was ready to do the same (Russian agencies, April 27).

Indeed, despite the Primakov’s diplomatic words today and the efforts of his spokesman to downplay the firing, observers in Russia were virtually unanimous that the prime minister was the main target in the ministerial shake-up, which many see as the first step in a campaign against Primakov. According to Russian law, if a prime minister steps down or is fired, the president can appoint a deputy prime minister to serve as acting prime minister, and the new cabinet head can serve for two months without being confirmed by the State Duma.

Thus if the Duma passes the opposition’s motion to impeach Yeltsin–a vote is now expected on May 13–Yeltsin will be able to respond by firing Primakov’s other two deputy prime ministers, Kulik and Yuri Maslyukov, and have Stepashin ready to assume the premiership if Primakov steps down (Kommersant, April, 28). Primakov has vowed to quit if either Maslyukov, who represents the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), or Kulik, who represents the Agrarian Party, are fired.

Maslyukov’s fate may hinge on the outcome of negotiations with International Monetary Fund (IMF), which he is in charge of. They have not been going well: IMF officials have said that Russia will not receive any money until July, and only if the cabinet is able to push key tax and other legislation through the Duma (Russian agencies, April 27-28).

Some observers have speculated that Yeltsin, rather than firing Maslyukov immediately, may appoint a third first deputy prime minister, and give him Maslyukov’s portfolio–overall responsibility for economic policy. If this happens, Yeltsin is likely to select the additional first deputy to Primakov from the camp of Russia’s economic reformers, a move which would further isolate Primakov and be welcomed by Western governments and creditors.

Samara Governor Konstantin Titov, who heads a new regionally based electoral bloc, said in an interview published today that more changes in the cabinet could be imminent (Kommersant, April 28). At Yeltsin’s request, Titov flew to Moscow yesterday for a meeting in the Kremlin.