Yeltsin's Loyal Fireman

Sergei Stepashin has the baby-faced looks and shy manner of a schoolboy, but don't be deceived. At 47, he is best known as a ruthless hawk who helped push Russia into the bloody Chechen war and then commanded forces there himself--once hitching a ride on a passing truck when a Russian Army tank failed to pick him up before a planned assault. Ever since the war he has shown the same determination in his tireless defense of his longtime patron, Boris Yeltsin. Fierce loyalty and strict obedience are the reasons Yeltsin picked Sergei Stepashin to be Russia's next prime minister.

Consider his 13 months as Interior minister: Stepashin devoted less time to fighting crime than to fighting for the president's political interests. Last month, when Prosecutor General Yuri Skuratov announced he had evidence that pointed to corruption in Yeltsin's inner circle, Stepashin belittled the claims. And when Skuratov issued a warrant for the arrest of the most infamous member of that inner circle, financier Boris Berezovsky, Stepashin--the nation's most senior policeman--declared publicly that he would ignore it. Stepashin also rushed to defend the "honor and dignity" of his boss, threatening to launch a criminal investigation when communist leader Gennady Zyuganov called Yeltsin a "spineless, helpless drunk" in February.

The main blot on Stepashin's record is Chechnya. As head of the FSK, one of the successor agencies to the KGB, Stepashin tried to deal with the rebellious republic by secretly arming the local opposition to President Dzhokhar Dudayev. That policy ended disastrously in November 1994, when a covert operation to topple Dudayev went wrong and 58 Russian soldiers were taken hostage by the rebels. The humiliating catastrophe led Stepashin and a handful of top military hawks to push for a much wider conflict, which killed tens of thousands of civilians and left Chechnya devastated.

Stepashin is a creature of the Soviet law-enforcement system. He joined the Interior Ministry in the 1970s as a political officer, working to ensure the ideological purity of the Soviet police. He later switched to lecturing at a St. Petersburg military academy, where his doctoral thesis was quintessentially Soviet: "[Communist] Party Leadership in Leningrad's Fire Brigades During World War II." This earned him a nickname: "the Fireman." Stepashin went into politics in 1990, when he was elected to the Soviet Parliament and first became close with Yeltsin and other liberals. He renounced his membership in the Communist Party on the day of the failed coup in August 1991 that propelled Yeltsin into the Kremlin. Liberal activists who knew him at the time say that his break with communism was traumatic; Stepashin, unlike Yeltsin, never harbored a deep hatred for the left.

One of Stepashin's main tasks will be resuscitating stalled economic reforms. But he's not someone who has spent much time thinking about tax systems and pension funds. His real role may simply be to act as an insurance policy for Yeltsin. He will not grab the limelight, as Primakov did, and if the Duma pursues corruption charges against the Kremlin, Stepashin will continue to pour cold water on them. Just like a good fireman.