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Russia In Crisis: What made Sergei Vladimirovich blush

"SO," GROWLED Boris Yeltsin, and the pause seemed to last an eternity before he continued, "you are not sitting in the right seats. Stepashin is the First Deputy. Sergei Vladimirovich, move up."

The ginger-haired and, by all accounts, modest Sergei V Stepashin, appointed days earlier as First Deputy Prime Minister, blushed so deeply that his ears and neck went red as he changed seats with a lesser official at the top of the table.

On the instructions of Mr Yeltsin's press secretary, Russian television has cut scenes of the President rambling incoherently. But it did show this game of musical chairs that the Kremlin leader unexpectedly played last week in the middle of a meeting supposed to be devoted to planning celebrations for the year 2000.

Ordinary Russians took it as further evidence that their unpredictable President was going senile. Experienced Kremlin watchers saw it as a sign that Mr Stepashin, who has had an up and down career, was about to rise again.

And yesterday Mr Yeltsin indeed appointed him acting Prime Minister in place of the ousted Yevgeny Primakov.

Mr Stepashin, 47, has been dubbed by the Russian media "the rosy-cheeked hawk". Before his promotion yesterday, he combined the job of First Deputy Prime Minister with that of Interior Minister, which put him in charge of thousands of internal troops and more than a million police. No doubt Mr Yeltsin had that in mind when he sacked Mr Primakov, a move he knew must enrage the Communists and nationalists in the State Duma.

To them, the appointment of Mr. Stepashin is little short of a Kremlin coup. If the confrontation between president and parliament becomes physical, as it did in October 1993, Mr Yeltsin now has not only a loyal prime minister but also a man who can command the tank drivers.

Mr Stepashin resigned in 1995 as head of the FSB, successor to the KGB, over his bloody mistakes during the war against Chechnya. Thanks to Mr Yeltsin, he is back from the wilderness.