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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Stepashin Surprised To Be Yeltsin's Pick

Sergei Stepashin was completely surprised when President Boris Yeltsin appointed him prime minister in May, because he had assumed the top job was already going to someone else, according to an interview with Stepashin published in this week's Argumenty i Fakti newspaper.

"It's no secret - the candidacy of another minister for the post of prime minister was being seriously considered. Therefore, the final decision of Boris Nikolayevich [Yeltsin] concerning me was absolutely unexpected," Stepashin was quoted as saying.

"I learned about it that morning, when I was invited to see the president. I did not even have time to prepare for anything."

Stepashin did not say who that "other minister" was. But he is almost certainly referring to Nikolai Aksyonenko, who was the railways minister in the Cabinet of Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov.

In the days before Primakov was fired May 12, Russian media were speculating that both Railways Minister Aksyonenko and Interior Minister Stepashin were in the running to replace him. The conventional wisdom is that Stepashin was the candidate of a camp led by Kremlin insider and privatization architect Anatoly Chubais, now head of the national power company Unified Energy Systems, while Aksyonenko's patron was the oil and media tycoon Boris Berezovsky.

If that is so, then Yeltsin carefully balanced the power of both the Chubais and Berezovsky camps. While Stepashin won Yeltsin's favor, the president appointed Aksyonenko as his No. 2 in the Cabinet. Yeltsin also rejected Stepashin's efforts to sideline Aksyonenko and appoint his own No. 2 man.

Aksyonenko has been dramatically assertive - most notably in the weeks immediately following his appointment, when he first flew down to Sochi on the Black Sea to barge in on a meeting between Yeltsin and Stepashin, and then days later announcing that his understanding with Yeltsin was that "my supervision will extend to all areas of [the Stepashin Cabinet's] work."

In his interview with Argumenty i Fakti, Stepashin is careful to praise Yeltsin. While he talks extensively about the December 1999 parliamentary elections, Stepashin turns aside a question about whether he and Yeltsin have ever discussed the June 2000 presidential elections." I don't think it's tactful to even talk today about on this topic: We have a sitting president!" Stepashin says.

Asked whether he has personal political ambitions beyond being prime minister - a veiled way of asking whether Stepashin wants to be president - Stepashin replies that all depends on how the State Duma elections turn out.

"For me [these elections] are a test. All the more so since the president has asked me to work on them," he said.

Stepashin also complained about press reports hinting at dubious financial activities on the part of his wife, Tamara, a banker.

"My Tamara had never before read such things about herself. She is a professional financier, moreover a 'red financier' - she's been in banking since 1974. That's her job.

"When we moved to Moscow, she built up from nothing the branch of a Moscow bank, one that was not touched by last year's [ruble devaluation] crisis. ... And now, they are starting to write this nonsense about her: that she privatized some sort of oil companies, other things,'" he said. "They've started advising her: Maybe you should quit [the bank].

"But I tell her, 'You're not going anywhere. Why should you quit? ... Why should I bother doing anything [in government] if you're going to be ashamed of such a normal profession as being a banker?"

Stepashin also denied reports that he had approved another 2.5 billion-ruble ($100 million) tranche of a 7.5 billion-ruble loan package from the Central Bank to the ailing bank SBS-Agro.

"Of course that's nonsense," he said. "We still can't get 700 million rubles out of them for our agriculture. I ordered [Agriculture Minister Vladimir] Shcherbak and [Central Bank chief Viktor] Gerashchenko to get that money out of [SBS-Agro]. Then in surprise, I read the opposite."

Stepashin, however, told a Cabinet meeting last week - in remarks that were televised - that SBS-Agro would indeed be getting the 2.5 billion-ruble tranche.