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Yeltsin sacks Stepashin, names new prime minister

HDN | 8/10/1999 12:00:00 AM |

Vladimir Putin named acting prime minister; president's unexpected move creates another political crisis in Russia Moscow - The Associated Press President Boris Yeltsin sacked Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin along with the entire Cabinet on Monday, touching off a fresh political crisis as the country prepares for two key elections in coming months. Yeltsin's unexpected move marked the fourth time in 17 months he has fired the government, and critics said the president's unpredictable behavior made him

  • Vladimir Putin named acting prime minister; president's unexpected move creates another political crisis in Russia
  • Moscow - The Associated Press

    President Boris Yeltsin sacked Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin along with the entire Cabinet on Monday, touching off a fresh political crisis as the country prepares for two key elections in coming months.

    Yeltsin's unexpected move marked the fourth time in 17 months he has fired the government, and critics said the president's unpredictable behavior made him unfit to govern.

    "It's hard to explain madness," Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister, told the Echo of Moscow radio station. "The people have grown tired of watching an ill leader who is not capable of doing his job."

    The president immediately named an acting prime minister, Vladimir Putin, the head of the Federal Security Service, the main successor to the KGB. Putin, 46, has spent most of his career in the country's security services, and has little experience with political or economic issues.

    Yeltsin, whose term expires next year, also declared that Putin would be his preferred successor.

    "I'm convinced he will serve the nation well while working in this high post, and Russians will be able to appraise Putin's human and business qualities. I trust him," Yeltsin said in a television address. "I also want everyone who goes to the (presidential) polls in July 2000 to make their choice to trust him too," the president added. However, Yeltsin's backing is a mixed blessing at best. The president's approval rating has been in single digits all year, and his endorsement could do a candidate more harm than good.

    Putin, meanwhile, immediately declared his candidacy.

    "I will undoubtedly run for president," said Putin, who takes over as premier at a volatile time.

    Russia's security forces are trying to suppress an uprising by several hundred Islamic militants who have seized several villages in the southern republic of Dagestan. Russian forces fired rockets and artillery at the rebels over the weekend, but did not dislodge them. More clashes were expected in coming days.

    Also, Russia's economy is still struggling following a financial crash last year. And campaigning has already begun for the parliamentary elections in December and the presidential poll next year. The Russian Constitution bars Yeltsin from a third term, and the Russian media has speculated that Yeltsin and his advisers are considering the possibility of postponing or canceling elections in a bid to extend his tenure.

    The Kremlin has vigorously denied these claims. Yeltsin signed a decree on Monday that sets the parliamentary elections for Dec. 19, as had been expected. Still, the latest upheaval adds to conjecture about Yeltsin's intentions.

    "In a year, the first Russian president will transfer his powers to a newly elected president for the first time in history," Yeltsin said. "You will elect your president in fair and honest elections."

    Yeltsin ousted Stepashin at a brief Monday morning meeting at the Kremlin. Stepashin, who served for only three months, said he was not given any reason for his dismissal.

    "This morning I visited the president and he signed a decree on my resignation. He thanked me for good work - and fired me," a somber-faced Stepashin told the Cabinet in a speech broadcast on Russian television.

    The mild-mannered Stepashin, who has been staunchly loyal to Yeltsin, indicated he was not pleased with his dismissal.

    "I honestly expressed my position concerning my resignation to Boris Nikolayevich, but this is his right as the president and the commander-in-chief," Stepashin said. "I told the president that I have been, am, and will remain with him until the end."

    Yeltsin, 68, has suffered a series of ailments in recent years and usually visits the Kremlin only a couple days a week for a few hours at a time. He has not set clear policy goals, and the repeated political shakeups have added to the sense of a government that is drifting without any real direction.

    The Russian media has speculated that members of the president's inner circle were pushing for Stepashin's removal in order to advance their own candidate - presumably Putin.

    Putin was a KGB officer in Germany during the Soviet era and rose through the ranks of the security services. Like Stepashin, he is a Yeltsin loyalist who had little political experience before being named to the prime minister's job.

    Yeltsin did not publicly criticize Stepashin during his brief tenure in office, but the president did not give him broad authority and Stepashin did not initiate any major changes.

    "These three months haven't been wasted, we have managed to keep the situation in the country under control. The ruble hasn't plunged contrary to many predictions," Stepashin said.

    However, the ruble began to fall immediately upon news of his dismissal, going from 24.9 to the U.S. dollar to 25.9 in street trading.

    Throughout his tenure, Yeltsin has frequently reshuffled his staff and the turnover has become even more rapid in the past two years.

    He dismissed Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin in March of last year, then sacked his successor Sergei Kiriyenko last August and fired Yevgeny Primakov in May.

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