Russia in turmoil: Yeltsin sacks entire government and appoints ex-KGB colonel as premier

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BORIS YELTSIN sacked his fourth government in 18 months yesterday and then astonished the world by naming the head of Russia's federal security service as his preferred successor.

BORIS YELTSIN sacked his fourth government in 18 months yesterday and then astonished the world by naming the head of Russia's federal security service as his preferred successor.

The President appeared on television to declare Vladimir Putin, director of the FSB, who worked for the Soviet KGB for more than 15 years, as the man he wants to be elected to the Kremlin next year.

The famously erratic President's performance came only hours after he unexpectedly sacked his premier of three months, Sergei Stepashin, and his government, thrusting Russia into still further political turmoil.

He nominated Mr Putin, 47, as his next premier, the fifth since March 1998. That appointment must be confirmed by the anti-Yeltsin lower house of parliament, the State Duma, which will meet to debate the issue next Monday.

Mr Putin would be "able to unite those who will renew the great Russia in the 21st century" and continue the "path of reforms", the grave-looking President said in a televised address, as he urged Russians to support his latest favourite. Mr Putin, who is little known by most Russians, followed up by confirming he will be running for president in next summer's elections. It was the most specific endorsement Mr Yeltsin has ever given to a possible successor. Previous potential heirs have all been fired by the president, often amid signs that they angeredhim by becoming too powerful.

Seeking to quash speculation that he is planning to cancel or postpone elections, or illegally extend his rule with a third term, Mr Yeltsin yesterday emphasised that elections will take place on schedule next year. And he declared a date for the parliamentary elections - 19 December.

Mr Putin, a former KGB colonel, has admitted spying for the Soviet Union in East Germany. He was a political protege of Anatoly Chubais, a fellow St Petersburger and avid free marketeer. Yesterday he said he planned no big changes in the government.

A visibly shocked Mr Stepashin left power unhappily, despite declaring his loyalty to the President.He said the West - which greeted yesterday's events with caution - has seen his government as civilised and honest. Close to tears, he told his cabinet that Mr Yeltsin had not explained his reasons for firing him.

But there are plenty of possible explanations - among them the growing stature of the two leading contenders for the presidency, Yuri Luzhkov and Yevgeny Primakov, both former allies of Mr Yeltsin and his entourage. Russians reacted with a mixture of anger and cynicism to the news. "It's so awful that you can only laugh," said Andrei Lukyanov, a television producer. "Any normal person should be in shock [at the sacking]. But we've seen it once, twice, three times and got used to this tragi-farce. The worst thing is that Russians have no faith left in politicians, not in any of them." Indeed, as elections approach, Russians are losing not only their trust in today's politicians but belief in the very possibility of democracy.

"I can't say whether elections will go ahead or not," said Georgy, a middle-aged Muscovite, "and frankly I don't care. Because it doesn't matter any more. They won't change anything." Although, in theory, Russia now has a multi-party system, no real parties, except the Communist Party, actually exist.

"Those who are not corrupt have no power. It's as simple as that," said Svetlana, a scientist. "They have long ago carved up all the privileges amongst themselves."