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Yeltsin gives disgraced spy chief key post

BORIS YELTSIN yesterday moved to bring order to the chaos caused by his government cull, by saying he will not run again for office and naming a once-disgraced ex-security service chief as Interior Minister.

Despite hints from his aides that he is keeping his options open about a third term, Mr Yeltsin - whose presidency has been overshadowed by ill- health - indicated he will stand down at the next elections in 2000. His government, fired en masse last week, remains in pieces as his inexperienced new Prime Minister, Sergei Kiriyenko, 35, prepares for a confirmation battle with the lower house of parliament.

All the main parliamentary factions have expressed misgivings about his nomination, and the Communists - who hold nearly a third of the seats - have demanded its withdrawal. A vote is due on Friday.

But, as Russia's political circles reel in the aftermath of the government's sacking, one part of the jigsaw slotted into place. The President named as acting Interior Minister Sergei Stepashin, a former head of the counter- intelligence services notorious for his bungled role in the Chechen war.

The 46-year-old lieutenant- general - appointed Justice Minister last year after the previous incumbent was photographed frolicking in a Moscow steam baths with two women - has remained close to Mr Yeltsin, despite a patchy career. In September 1994 he led an operation to arm pro-Moscow Chechen opposition forces with tanks, anti-aircraft missiles, and helicopters.

Although he later criticised Russia's decision to send troops into the republic, starting a 21-month war, he is still blamed by rights groups for his role. Among other things, his agency, then called the FSK, supplied the Kremlin with misleading intelligence about the pro-independence forces. In June 1995 he was sacked after Chechen fighters took 1,500 people hostage in south Russia.

His appointment indicates his links to the intelligence community are valued by Mr Yeltsin, who, mindful no doubt, of the attempted coup against Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991, has gone to lengths to maintain tight control over the security services.

The minister, whose appointment must be approved by parliament, becomes Russia's chief policeman, a role previously filled by the hawkish Anatoly Kulikov, sacked last week. Mr Stepashin will hope to see Mr Yeltsin through to the end of his presidency in 2000 - if, that is, the President sticks by his words.

Although Mr Yeltsin indicated he would not be running again, he has a record of contradictory behaviour. If no other candidate stands a chance of victory, and his health holds up, he will be under pressure from the ruling elite to change his mind. For now, Mr Yeltsin has tentatively aligned himself with Viktor Chernomyrdin, the ex-prime minister, without giving him unqualified backing.

The sacked prime minister would head the government's election campaign, he said yesterday, before meeting the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan. "We need a strong leader and, bearing in mind that I, so to speak, am not taking part in the elections, we need reinforcements. That is why we rearranged the pieces and put everything in place."