This latest Russian premier inspires few

Yeltsin's choice, approved by Duma on May 19, is a loyal caretaker, not

Russia's new prime minister, Sergei Stepashin, has vowed nobly to push on with economic reforms demanded by the West. But few analysts expect sustained economic recovery until presidential elections due in 13 months change the face at the helm of Russia's ship of state.

Analysts say Mr. Stepashin is hardly the man to lead the country out of its financial mire of defaults, lost investor confidence, and corruption. A former interior minister who has made a career in the security services, he was endorsed by Mr. Yeltsin for his loyalty and by parliament only because it feared dissolution if it rejected him.

He may be able to push through the Duma, the Russian lower house, unpopular laws necessary to win a $4.5 billion credit from the International Monetary Fund to stave off default. And he may boost the profile of free marketers in his Cabinet.

But the political instability that so unnerves foreign creditors remains: Yeltsin's lack of vision, his tendency to fire cabinets on a whim, and looming elections that could reverse fiscal policy. In addition, the roots of the economic conundrum - poor tax collection, massive capital flight, and industrial decline - are unlikely to be properly addressed.

"No prime minister could make long-term reforms under these circumstances," says Andrei Neschadin, director of the Expert Institute, a think tank based in Moscow. Leonid Fituni, head of the Strategical and Global Research Center in Moscow adds: "Stepashin does not have enough time, credibility, or influence to change things."

Stepashin is the fourth prime minister in a little more than a year to serve the unpredictable Yeltsin, whom many observers pinpoint as the main source of instability in Russia. During his eight-year post-Soviet presidency, Yeltsin undermined his own promises to turn Russia into a thriving, rich democracy. Instead the economy went bust and parliament became toothless when faced with his near-authoritarian powers.

Indeed, Yeltsin manufactured another crisis last week when he abruptly fired Stepashin's predecessor, Yevgeny Primakov, just before the Duma was to hold an impeachment vote. Lawmakers, fearing the president might dismiss the Duma as well and move up December parliamentary elections, rejected impeachment and easily confirmed Stepashin Wednesday.

A confrontation was averted, but the apparent new passivity does not solve the country's underlying problem - politics dominated by an ailing leader who lacks commitment to back up his free-market rhetoric.

Like his master, Stepashin mouths words the West wants to hear. Like his predecessors, he vowed to continue reforms. His priorities include "decriminalizing" the economy, tougher tax collection, revival of the banking sector, and fighting capital flight. But as interior minister he failed to install a rule of law in the financial realm and there is no indication he would be more effective now.

"When Stepashin was interior minister he never made life worse for criminal financiers or oligarchs. He is making empty statements," says Sergei Isayev, with the government-linked Sociology, Scientific and Research Center based in St Petersburg.

Besides, there will be little time to enact long-term policy with the elections coming up. Stepashin is seen as little more than a caretaker.

He may well go down in history as the most malleable prime minister of all. Stepashin lacks the vision of the first acting premier, Yegor Gaidar, who was fired in December 1992 for introducing radical and unpopular free market measures. He is not a political heavyweight like Viktor Chernomyrdin, an old-Soviet apparatchik with close ties to the oligarchs who survived for more than six years until Yeltsin felt threatened by his popularity.

Stepashin is not as well-versed in finance as Sergei Kiriyenko, who doggedly tried to implement reforms during his brief five months in office. The last man in the job, Mr. Primakov, was a seasoned foreign minister who overshadowed Yeltsin at home and abroad. He was also booted when Yeltsin grew jealous - a lesson Stepashin is sure to study well.

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