VLADIVOSTOK, Russia — Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s sacking of his fourth prime minister in 17 months left Far Eastern residents shaking their heads and complaining that the aging president is unfit to rule the country.
But the firing of Sergei Stepashin on Monday may have a more concrete effect on the region, damaging the accord Moscow had cobbled together with local officials to provide fuel and provisions for their people. The ousted Stepashin spent only three months in office.
In one of the erratic moves that Yeltsin employs to keep his opponents off guard, the president endorsed his new prime ministerial appointee, the nation’s security chief and former Soviet spy Vladimir Putin, as his choice to succeed him as chief of state in next year’s elections. Yeltsin told the nation in a television address that Putin “will be able to unite those who will renew a great Russia in the 21st century.”
But in the economically depressed Far Eastern region, 16,000 km by rail from Moscow, the move threatens many areas that depend on federal assistance.
Alexei Bayandin, press secretary for the governor’s office in Sakhalin, said that the firing will set back the regions that must restock supplies during the short summer season, when the sea is thawed. Now, he said, at least a month will pass before the Finance Ministry will begin paying to deliver fuel and food as part of its annual “northern delivery” program.
A month’s delay could prove dangerous for areas such as Magadan, that relied on handouts from relief agencies last winter because the federal government failed to fund its traditional “northern delivery” program to provide food stuffs. The sea typically freezes by October.
The firing particularly aggravated officials who had flown from around the region to Vladivostok to meet with Stepashin during his July 30 trip to the city, or to negotiate fuel supplies with First Vice Premier Nikolai Aksyonenko, who visited July 1.
“As soon as we made the new government aware of our problems, as soon as we reached agreements on financing the northern territories, the government was dismissed,” Sakhalin’s Bayandin said. “And that means that all our efforts were in vain.”
Yevgeny Nazdratenko, governor of Russia’s far southeastern Primorye region, told the Mestnoye Vremya television program that Stepashin’s departure will force his administration to renegotiate contracts with the federal government for fuel delivery in the heating season. And it could endanger business deals reached in the United States during Stepashin’s recent visit.
“I hope the president knows what he is doing,” Nazdratenko said. “But it is we who will have to live in Russia.”
Marina Loboda, a political reporter for the daily Vladivostok newspaper, said nothing can be done to change the instability brought about by Yeltsin. “He is like a plague: The whole country can only live through it and patiently wait for when he is gone,” she said.
Loboda, like many national commentators, said the changes of prime ministers are a result of behind-the-scenes intrigues caused by Yeltsin’s family. The family is said to be afraid that Yeltsin’s successor will prosecute them for alleged corruption and graft.
Putin said Monday that fighting in the Caucasian region of Dagestan — a Muslim territory with strong secessionist sentiments — had contributed to Stepashin’s sudden ouster, Radio Free Europe reported. Stepashin told a final meeting of his Cabinet: “I think Russia could really lose Dagestan.”
Yeltsin fought for democracy during a coup d’etat in 1991 and enjoyed popularity for many years. But amid Russia’s economic crisis and his repeated juggling of prime ministers, he has become a laughingstock and source of danger for his own country, many people say.
Descriptions of Yeltsin on the street in Vladivostok Tuesday were venomous. Viktor Markin, 52, a boatswain on a local cargo ship, called him an imbecile. Markin snapped, “He plays with the prime ministers as chess figures, and absolutely doesn’t care about what is going on in the country.”
Vasily Kravtsov, 43, who is unemployed, said the move by Yeltsin increases the chances of a Communist victory in December’s elections for the Duma, or lower house of Parliament. “He screwed up democracy in our country,” he said. “Now our people associate democracy with big disorder and destruction.”
Kira Sidorova, 24, paused while playing with her 18-month-old son on a playground and said she wished she could get some explanation for Yeltsin’s decisions. “Everybody hates him,” she said. “He does such disgraceful things.”
Few knew who Putin was and most didn’t understand why Yeltsin had declared him his successor.
Yekaterina Shvedova, a 15-year-old high school student who saw Stepashin at the Navy Day celebration in Vladivostok in July, said she is alarmed to see Yeltsin’s halting, apparently drunken speech on television. And she did not like the choice of Putin. “At least before Yeltsin appointed famous people as prime ministers,” Shvedova said. “I’ve never heard of this Putin guy before.”
Some people worry that appointing a Federal Security Service boss might mean introducing the state of emergency and canceling free elections. Anatoly Gunko, 55, a welder, said that it was not by accident the war in Dagestan coincided with Stepashin’s dismissal. “Yeltsin has a sick head, but he wants to stay in power, and he will do anything for that.”
While some officials worried about re-establishing ties with Moscow before needing fuel supplies, others say they have already gotten used to getting by amid turmoil in Moscow.
Viktor Ishayev, governor of the Khabarovsk region, which borders China and the Sea of Japan, told reporters, “We’ll have to keep surviving. The regions have lived on their own for a long time already.”
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.