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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Stepashin Won Post By Remaining Loyal

Russia's new first deputy prime minister has faithfully served President Boris Yeltsin throughout his stormy presidency - and that loyalty was his principal qualification for the post, analysts said Wednesday.

Sergei Stepashin, who for now keeps his post of interior minister along with his new title, would be in a position to take the government's reins should Yeltsin fire Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov. Stepashin, however, denied Wednesday that this was the motivation behind his promotion.

Though given to hawkish statements, Stepashin, 47, is actually a member of the younger, more liberal generation of post-Soviet security officials.

He has managed to steer clear of corruption scandals, and though he was fired from his post as head of the KGB's main successor agency after a bungled hostage crisis during the war in Chechnya, he bounced back to rejoin the Cabinet. This week his career rose to new heights when he replaced Vadim Gustov as one of Primakov's two first deputies.

Stepashin was born on a Soviet military base at Port Arthur in China. He joined the Interior Ministry troops in 1973 and from 1980 to 1992 taught at a military academy. In 1986 he wrote his doctoral dissertation, "Party Leadership in Leningrad's Fire Brigades During World War II."

In 1990, he became a member of the Supreme Soviet, where he headed the defense and security committee and first began forging links to liberal politicians such as Yeltsin. In 1991, he joined the security services, of which he became head in 1994.

Stepashin's reputation as a liberal was severely tarnished by his involvement in Chechnya. Many observers say it was flawed intelligence from Stepashin's agency, the Federal Counterintelligence Service, or FSK, that convinced Yeltsin to order the disastrous 1994 invasion of Grozny that started the war.

In 1995 he was fired after a mismanaged attempt to solve a Chechen hostage crisis in the southern Russian town of Budyonnovsk.

"The Chechen experience fundamentally harmed him in the eyes of democratic society," said Alexei Zudin of the Center for Political Technologies.

But for Yeltsin, Stepashin's flaws have been mitigated by his unbending loyalty, and in 1997, Stepashin was resurrected to fill the shoes of disgraced Justice Minister Valentin Kovalyov, who resigned after a Moscow newspaper published pictures of him cavorting with prostitutes in a reputed gangland sauna.

While justice minister, Stepashin oversaw the transfer of the prison system from the Interior Ministry to the Justice Ministry - a practice in keeping with European human rights standards.

As interior minister, a post he has held since April 1998, Stepashin has earned a reputation as a tough talker, repeatedly vowing to "destroy" bandits running kidnapping rackets in the North Caucasus.

A day before his appointment to the new post, Stepashin pledged to crack down on lawlessness in the region by partially closing Russia's border with Chechnya and shooting "bandits" on sight.

Though Stepashin has been unswervingly loyal to his civilian boss, his reputation as a policeman - the Interior Ministry oversees the police - lends ominous overtones to Yeltsin's relationship with parliament. Many observers are predicting a dramatic conflict between Yeltsin and the State Duma, the lower house, which is poised to impeach him.

Yeltsin could react to impeachment by provoking a standoff over a new prime minister, enabling him to legally dissolve the Duma. Alternatively, he could use constitutionally dubious means and declare a state of emergency.

"If need be, [Stepashin could] without fear and reproach break up the parliament," wrote the daily Izvestia.

"What's the Constitution to an old fireman?" said Andrei Piontkovsky, director of the Center for Strategic Studies.

But other analysts said Stepashin would know when to stop. "There is a limit to Stepashin's loyalty," Zudin said.

"I think he would take the side of the law," agreed Sergei Markov, director of the Institute of Political Studies.

Markov praised Stepashin's performance as interior minister, saying he rooted out the most corrupt officials in the ministry and improved the police's performance in solving crimes.