Is This Russia's Next Prime Minister?

If Primakov goes, Stepashin might be next in the hot seat

Is Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov's power waning? Only a few weeks ago, the 69-year-old ex-spymaster was thrusting himself into the center of key events inside his country and abroad. Indeed, for a couple of days in April, Primakov seemed to be positioning himself to emerge as a victor in the Kosovo conflict by brokering peace between NATO and Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. That could have given Primakov a tremendous boost in advance of next year's presidential elections in Russia.

Then, President Boris N. Yeltsin swung into action. After weeks on the sidelines recovering from a stomach ulcer diagnosed in January, Yeltsin rose from his sickbed and declared: "I have fully recovered, I am in marvelous form and ready for battle." He immediately appointed former Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin as his envoy to Belgrade, undercutting Primakov. And on Apr. 27, Yeltsin fired Primakov's right-hand man in the government, First Deputy Prime Minister Vadim Gustov, and replaced him with his own man, Interior Minister Sergei Stepashin.

Now rumors are rife in Moscow that Yeltsin is preparing to oust Primakov, whose growing influence irks Yeltsin. The President appointed Primakov as a compromise candidate for Prime Minister after last summer's financial crisis, when the Duma refused to approve his first nominee, Chernomyrdin. Since then, Primakov has cultivated close ties with the Communist-led Duma, dotted the government with ex-KGB officers, and consolidated his power.

But he overplayed his hand, analysts say. In January, Primakov wrote a letter to the Duma requesting deputies to delay a vote to impeach Yeltsin. In exchange, Primakov proposed that Yeltsin back away from daily duties as President and take on a ceremonial role, while he would stay on as Prime Minister until the June, 2000, presidential elections. "Yeltsin didn't like being asked nicely to retire early. This was a fatal mistake, and since then it's been war," says Andrei Piontkovsky, director of Moscow's Institute of Strategic Studies.

In coming weeks, analysts speculate, Yeltsin could try to provoke Primakov to resign. One way would be to oust two of Primakov's remaining key deputies: Agricultural Minister Gennady Kulik and First Deputy Prime Minister Yury Maslyukov, a Communist Party member and key economic policymaker. Primakov has vowed to resign if Yeltsin fires his top aides. Another test will come in late May when Primakov must persuade the Duma to pass measures required by the International Monetary Fund before it issues a new $4.5 billion loan to Russia. If the Duma refuses to pass the laws, which include an unpopular alcohol-tax hike, Yeltsin could accuse Primakov of ineffectiveness and demand that he resign.

CHECHNYA HAWK. In that event, analysts surmise, Yeltsin would tap his newly appointed First Deputy Prime Minister, Stepashin, as acting Prime Minister. According to the Russian constitution, when the head of government steps down, the President must tap a First Deputy Prime Minister to serve as acting Prime Minister. Stepashin, who as Interior Minister heads Russia's 1.6 million-member domestic militia force, would likely follow Yeltsin's orders rather than promote his own agenda. A loyal Yeltsin ally, he is known among Russians for having advised the President to escalate the disastrous conflict in Chechnya in 1994.

Even as the political duel between Yeltsin and Primakov plays out, the President still faces an impeachment vote in the Duma on May 13. Few believe his opponents can muster the two-thirds majority needed to pass the five charges, which range from instigating the 1991 Soviet collapse to pursuing policies that impoverish the country.

By promoting Stepashin--known as a "power minister" because he runs internal security--Yeltsin keeps the Duma and Primakov guessing about his tactics. Yeltsin's intentions, however, are clear. He plans to stay in power until the Presidential elections--and is still capable of putting up a political fight.

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