Duma caves in and supports Yeltsin

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The Independent Online
BORIS YELTSIN'S battle with parliament went from high drama to damp squib yesterday with the speedy confirmation of his new Prime Minister, Sergei Stepashin. Cowed by concerns for its own survival, the Duma set aside its indignation over the firing of Yevgeny Primakov, swallowed the failure last week of its long-threatened impeachment drive, and approved Mr Stepashin in his new job.

The lower house's decision - 301 votes to 55 - means Mr Yeltsin has managed to replace a popular premier whom he saw as a threat to his authority with an almost slavishly loyal ally, without triggering the constitutional crisis many had feared. Mr Stepashin has made it clear that he plans no dramatic changes of direction.

Mr Yeltsin's victory was seen by some as evidence that - for all his frailty and incoherence, and despite Russia's economic and social instability - the 68-year-old President has not lost his touch. But it said far more about the constitutional weakness, lack of self-confidence and general malleability of Russia's parliament.

Underlying the Duma's decision was the fear that a vengeful Mr Yeltsin would dissolve parliament and exercise his right to install a less acceptable premier without parliamentary approval.

Hovering in the wings were the newly promoted First Deputy Prime Minister, Nikolai Asyonenko - a protege of the unpopular tycoon, Boris Berezovsky - and the hated Viktor Chernomyrdin, an ex-premier who is now the Kremlin's Balkans envoy.

There was a strong air of resignation and even despair among those who flagged through Mr Stepashin, after a debate that lasted less than four hours. "We believe that with the country half in ruins we need some sort of stability," said Vladimir Ryzhkov, parliamentary leader of the centrist Our Home is Russia party. "Under our constitution it is the President who decides whom to appoint as Prime Minister. There is no point in resisting."

Mr Stepashin yesterday seemed surprised by the Duma's lack of appetite for a battle, pointing out that he had expected "angry questions". In a speech to the chamber, he sought to quell speculation that he would take a dictatorial approach to economics, comparable to Chile's Augusto Pinochet "I am not General Pinochet," said the pudgy premier, "The name's Stepashin."

But he also made clear that, unlike the popular and independently-minded Mr Primakov, he is the President's man. "Regardless of any political situation, I shall never allow myself to leave or betray the President,'' he said, almost hoarse with emotion.

Although not overwhelmingly popular, Russia's new Prime Minister - Mr Yeltsin's fourth in little more than a year - is a pragmatist who cannot easily be categorised as liberal or hardline: his career has shown symptoms of both. With an orthodox party career behind him and a long association with the security apparatus, he is regarded by many of the ex-apparatchiki in parliament as a man they can work with, because he is cast in their mould.

He takes over the premier's chair after a year as Interior Minister, a job which placed him in charge of more than a million police and troops and saw him grappling with political unrest, hostage-taking and criminality in the north Caucasus. Previously he served a brief stint as Justice Minister, where he won some liberal respect by pushing for Russia's filthy prisons to be brought up to standards required by the Council of Europe.

His biggest failure was, as head of counter-intelligence, to be among those who advised the President to send troops into Chechnya in late 1994 - advice which he later admitted to regretting.