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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

PARTY LINES: Loyal Putin Couldn't Save His Last Boss

The inside skinny on why President Boris Yeltsin replaced Sergei Stepashin, a loyal 40-something former spymaster from St. Petersburg, with Vladimir Putin, a loyal 40-something former spymaster from St. Petersburg, is supposedly simple.

Stepashin was weak. Putin is tougher. With yet another round of decisive elections on the horizon, toughness matters.

Despite the Kremlin's best efforts, Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov managed to unite his Fatherland party with the All Russia movement of regional leaders. This was a wake-up call for Yeltsin's inner circle - the legendary "family" - which dreads a Luzhkov presidency, and the reckoning, and possible indictments, they are convinced would surely follow.

Stepashin, the "family" reportedly believes, was either unable or unwilling to thwart the Luzhkov juggernaut. Enter Putin - former KGB, master of backroom intrigue, the gray cardinal of St. Petersburg. If Stepashin isn't able to keep Luzhkov out of the Kremlin, surely Putin can get the job done.

Or can he?

The image I will always have of Putin is that of former St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly Sobchak's most powerful and trusted deputy. When Sobchak didn't want to deal with the media, he sent the dour Putin - who would scowl, tell us nothing and frighten the more timid among us away. Putin was also rumored to be the most powerful player in Sobchak's Cabinet.

So when Sobchak's other deputy, Vladimir Yakovlev, announced in the summer of 1996 that he was challenging his boss and running for St. Petersburg's top job, few took it seriously - at least at first. The conventional wisdom was that Sobchak's loyal deputy Putin would destroy this pretender to the throne. As is often the case, the conventional wisdom was wrong.

Sobchak employed the usual dirty tricks - including handing nice new apartments, for a nominal fee, to his supporters. Among them were the editors of influential local newspapers like Nevskoye Vremya and Chas Pik and, by the way, Putin's mother.

Considering the depths the Sobchak-Putin team sank to, however, it was all surprisingly ineffectual. Sobchak lost to Yakovlev by a slim 27,000 vote margin. Sobchak was named in a corruption probe and later fled the country, spending 20 months in self-imposed exile in Paris, from which he returned only last month. (He apparently felt safer with allies like Stepashin and Putin in such high places).

How could Sobchak-Putin lose to an unknown like Yakovlev? Because a key backer of Yakovlev's successful campaign was none other than Luzhkov. For Yakovlev, the co-chairman of All Russia, it is now payback time - as he and other regional barons who owe Luzhkov favors are trying to help the mayor move from 13 Tverskaya to the Kremlin.

Paradoxically, failing to re-elect Sobchak was probably the best thing that ever happened to Putin's career. He was immediately brought to Moscow, where he climbed the "corporate" ladder to become acting prime minister.

Yeltsin and the "family" may think they can relax. The loyal Putin, after all, is on the case. He will destroy this pretender to the throne. Right?

Maybe not. If Putin's previous showdown against Luzhkov and his proxies in St. Petersburg is any indication, the Kremlin travel office should start booking tickets to Paris for next July.