True to form, Russian President Boris Yeltsin has astounded his country and the world. Demonstrating that nothing is more important to the mercurial Russian leader than the fate of his regime and his family — it is hard to distinguish the two — Mr. Yeltsin this week dismissed Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin and replaced him with Mr. Vladimir Putin, head of the internal security services. The move was unexpected, and remains unexplained; the only hint of a rationale is Mr. Yeltsin’s statement that the new prime minister “is able to consolidate society” and continue reforms. History suggests the proper emphasis belongs on the first reason, not the second.

Mr. Putin is Russia’s fifth prime minister in 17 months. He is even more unknown than his predecessor, Mr. Stepashin, who was plucked from relative obscurity only three months ago by Mr. Yeltsin. Being unknown need not be a disqualification. Mr. Stepashin has done a creditable job during his term in office. He seems to have put relations with the United States and the West back on track after the diplomatic dust up over Kosovo. During his recent trip to the U.S., he persuaded the International Monetary Fund to release another $4.5 billion in funds for the troubled Russian economy. His popularity within Russia seemed to be on the rise.

Mr. Stepashin may not have been the man Mr. Yeltsin wanted him to be, but his performance as prime minister has not warranted his dismissal (Indeed, in his first statement, Mr. Putin said that he would make few Cabinet changes and would continue his predecessor’s policies.). But Russia’s prime minister wears a second hat — protector of the Yeltsin family interests — and in this endeavor, Mr. Stepashin was falling short. The key evidence is the emergence last week of a new political alliance, the Fatherland-All Russia, launched by Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and his allies, several regional governors.

The president is barred by law from running for a third term, and has said at various times that he will step down. Nonetheless, there is speculation that Mr. Yeltsin may yet figure out a way to stay in office without resorting to extraconstitutional measures. If a successor can promise to protect the political and economic interests of Mr. Yeltsin and his immediate circle of supporters and advisers, then the president seems willing to step down. Mr. Yeltsin himself is concerned about investigations into business deals concluded during his presidency, allegations of misuse of public funds and the revival of charges made against him during Parliament’s unsuccessful attempt to impeach him, which include those against his decision to use tanks against the Parliament in 1993 and the disastrous military campaign against Chechen rebels.

Mr. Luzhkov is the most formidable opponent of Mr. Yeltsin. He is popular and seems every bit as devious as the president. He has a political machine that rivals the president’s, with his own cabal of business and media magnates. Until last week, his chief liability was the geographical limit of his appeal; the new alliance gives him national clout.

Mr. Stepashin seems to have paid with his job for his inability to block the new party. Mr. Putin said he was informed of his appointment the day after the alliance was announced; Mr. Stepashin was told only on the day he was dismissed.

Mr. Putin, a hardliner whose loyalty to the president is beyond doubt, will be ruthless. Several months ago, a prosecutor investigating business interests allied to Mr. Yeltsin was filmed cavorting with two prostitutes. The prosecutor alleged the tape was a fake. Mr. Putin publicly confirmed its authenticity, ending the investigation and protecting Mr. Yeltsin’s pals. The question now is how far he will go. Several scenarios to suspend next year’s election are in circulation; the outbreak of fighting in Dagestan could be one such pretext.

That would be an inglorious end to the Yeltsin era. The president has been acting increasingly erratic in recent years. His health is failing and at times he does not seem to be in control of all his faculties. Although he has undermined much of his legacy — defined when he climbed atop a Soviet tank during the Communist putsch against then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991 — he has not destroyed it completely. It is not too late to ruin what little is left, though.

Hopefully, Mr. Putin will not assist him in that last assignment. Nor should the nations that deal with Russia. Too often, they have confused Mr. Yeltsin’s survival with the fate of Russian democracy. “Less personality, more principle” should be guiding policy toward Russia. In fact, it is not a bad idea for Moscow’s own decision makers.

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