Kremlin cronies scupper ministry in days

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The Independent Online
LESS THAN a fortnight after its birth, Russia's government is at risk of dying in its infancy, stifled by a power struggle between the new Prime Minister and Boris Yeltsin's family and inner circle.

Eleven days after being confirmed as Prime Minister by parliament, Sergei Stepashin has seen a swift collapse of confidence in his authority after losing crucial contests with the Kremlin. The latest humiliation came with the resignation of his first deputy prime minister, Mikhail Zadornov, after a row over which minister has ultimate responsibility for the economy. As Finance Minister, Mr Zadornov, 36, was crucial in Russia's negotiations with the IMF over $4.5bn in fresh loans. Mr Stepashin wanted him to keep the portfolio, but was overruled.

At the heart of the issue is the arrival in office of Nikolai Aksyonenko, a protege of the ambitious business magnate Boris Berezovsky, a close friend of Mr Yeltsin's family who has seized on the country's political turmoil to restore himself to the status of Russia's covert king-maker. Only a few months ago, there was a warrant out for Mr Berezovsky's arrest; now he is back and pulling the strings behind the scene, apparently safe from prosecution. The new Interior Minister, Vladimir Rushailo, is said to be a close ally.

Mr Aksyonenko, a former railways minister with no experience of the finance ministries, also has the support of the Yeltsin "first family", led by his quiet but highly influential younger daughter, Tatyana Dyachenko, and Valentin Yumashev, a presidential adviser and former chief of staff. The railwayman has made clear he wants as much control over the economy as he can get. Mr Stepashin - a former interior minister who has a solid record of loyalty to the President - has been in open conflict with Mr Yeltsin, prompting speculation that he will not last long. One of the main reasons the last premier, Yevgeny Primakov, was fired by the President was because he sought to restrict the power of the Kremlin.

If he goes, more paralysis looms. This is the fourth government in 14 months. Mr Stepashin was approved without any fight by the opposition- dominated lower house of parliament. The next candidate may not be so lucky.

But the outlook is not prom-ising for the baby-faced premier. Only 11 days ago, Mr Stepashin, a former security services general, was reassuring parliament that he was not - as some feared - Russia's answer to Augusto Pinochet, combining economic liberalism with brutal authoritarianism. Such is the erosion of his status that he had to remind his cabinet openly last week that he was in charge. Some believe it is already too late after weekend reports that the cabinet has collapsed.