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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin Sets Kremlin Sights on Regions




Even before parliament debates his nomination for prime minister, Vladimir Putin is to leave Moscow on a trip to Siberia to meet with regional governors, whose loyalty President Boris Yeltsin is eager to secure.


Political analysts expect Putin, the former head of the Federal Security Service, or FSB, to lean on regional leaders - many of whom have aligned themselves with Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, who is deeply distrusted by Yeltsin's entourage and has all but declared his candidacy for president.


No definitive explanation of Yeltsin's decision to fire Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin on Monday and replace him with Putin has been offered. But the emerging consensus is that Stepashin failed to derail Luzhkov's political locomotive, which has lined up the backing of leading regional governors ahead of the December parliamentary elections.


Reaction to Yeltsin's decision to dump Stepashin and name the heretofore obscure Putin has wavered between boredom at yet another government crisis fueled by Kremlin intrigue and apprehension that the move is a prelude to canceling elections and declaring a state of emergency.


In his first full day on the job, Putin met with Yeltsin to discuss escalating tensions in the Caucasus and his upcoming confirmation vote Monday in the State Duma, the lower house of parliament. Yeltsin opened the meeting by asking Putin about his mood.


"Combative," Putin said, in his trademark terse manner.


Later in the day, Putin, who kept tabs on the regions when he was a Kremlin aide, announced plans to visit Tomsk, Western Siberia, on Thursday to attend a session of the Siberian Interregional Association, a loose grouping of Siberia's governors, where issues related to next year's federal budget will be discussed.


"I don't expect Putin to use rude or direct methods with the governors," political analyst Yury Korgunyuk of the INDEM research center said. "He will use more sophisticated and subtle means to persuade them to the Kremlin's side."


Some say that the ever-pragmatic regional leaders could - with the proper enticements - be persuaded to return to the Kremlin fold.


Meanwhile, in what is fast becoming a trend for former prime ministers, Stepashin on Tuesday found himself the object of political courtship.


Both Luzhkov's Fatherland and the liberal electoral bloc Right Cause publicly asked Stepashin, whose popularity rose in presidential polls from nil to about 10 percent in his 82 days in office, to run from their respective movements for a seat in the State Duma."


For the 80 days of his work as chairman of the government, the level of trust in Stepashin had approached, judging by polls, that of Yury Luzhkov and Gennady Zyuganov, and he had not made a single serious mistake," said former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov, a member of Right Cause.


Stepashin held meetings Tuesday with various politicians at his dacha, but has yet to comment on either offer, Interfax reported.


Another top politician who has been oddly silent is Luzhkov, who is reportedly vacationing outside of Moscow.


Putin, meanwhile, has been courting the Duma. On Monday night, he met with Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznyov to schedule meetings with the leftist factions - the Communists, Agrarians and Popular Rule - that dominate the lower house. Those meetings will take place next Monday at 10 a.m., hours before the Duma is slated to debate Putin's candidacy. Seleznyov has said he expects Putin to win confirmation, possibly on the first vote.


Despite media speculation that other ministers might be fired, Putin said there would be "no spontaneous dismissals." He also asked all of the so-called power ministers - defense, foreign affairs and interior, plus the head of the FSB - to remain in office.


Kommersant newspaper said Mikhail Zadornov - Yeltsin's special envoy to international financial organizations - may be replaced by Alexander Livshits, now the president's representative to the Group of Seven industrial nations. NTV television reported that controversial Deputy Prime Minister Nikolai Aksyonenko may also be dismissed.


Meanwhile, suspended Prosecutor General Yury Skuratov - whom the Kremlin has been trying to fire - said Putin's nomination could be the first step toward canceling upcoming elections and declaring emergency rule.


"The Kremlin may take the most unexpected moves," Skuratov was quoted as saying by Interfax. He compared the situation to the 1991 coup, in which an attempt to declare emergency rule "led to the collapse of the ruling regime."


The media has been spinning emergency rule scenarios for months, including the Kremlin using tensions in the North Caucasus as a pretext, or provoking the Communists into street protests by burying Lenin. The presidential entourage is eager to secure a friendly successor to ward off reprisals - such as corruption trials - from their enemies.


Last week, the weekly newspaper Moskovskiye Novosti speculated - correctly as it turned out - that Stepashin might be fired and replaced by Putin, who is considered a tougher defender of the Kremlin's interests. If the Duma fails three times to confirm Putin, Yeltsin could disband the parliament and then plan his next moves in peace.


Political analyst Yevgeny Volk, head of the Heritage Foundation's Moscow office, said that he "didn't exclude the possibility" that such a scenario was on the minds of Yeltsin's inner circle. But such a turn of events now seems remote, given Putin's likely confirmation.


Korgunyuk said "a state of emergency is not a possibility," adding that Russia's bureaucratic class is too divided and too interested in maintaining the status quo to accept such a move.


"This is a myth that has thrived in the media," he said. "In reality we have a diverse bureaucracy, with conflicting interests, but which also wants to preserve its current arrangements."


Former Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko said Tuesday he plans to initiate a national referendum on changing the Constitution prior to next year's presidential elections, Interfax reported.


The referendum, Kiriyenko said, will seek to restrict the president's ability to fire the Cabinet, which President Boris Yeltsin has done four times in 17 months. "The new president must be elected under a new constitution," Kiriyenko said.


"If the system cannot be changed by means of talks with authorities, let us talk directly with society," Kiriyenko said, adding that initiators of the referendum are prepared to begin the collection of the necessary 2 million signatures.