President Boris Yeltsin now fires his governments with all apparent deliberation of changing neckties.
But yesterday's dismissal of Sergei Stepashin, his fourth prime minister in less than 18 months, has raised fears, never far from the surface, that the volatile leader may even derail presidential elections set for next year.
Mr. Yeltsin is a lame duck president whose eight-year rule as the first post-Soviet leader is due to end in June.
But Russia has never had a constitutional transfer of power, and many analysts worry that it may not happen now.
The commander of this nuclear-armed former superpower is besieged on several fronts. Several members of his entourage are the targets of corruption probes. Powerful regional governors have formed an electoral alliance to challenge his choice of successor. The economy is in tatters. Islamic insurgents in Russia's unstable Caucasus region are stirring up trouble.
Some analysts see all this as a potential pretext for a crackdown on Russia's fragile democracy.
"It could be possible the Kremlin would want a state of emergency," says Vyacheslav Nikonov, president of the independent Politika Foundation in Moscow.
Mr. Nikonov says an excuse for such an emergency declaration might be the current unrest in the southern province of Dagestan. This past weekend, Muslim warlords from neighboring Chechnya seized several border towns and demanded the creation of an Islamic superstate in the Caucasus mountains.
The Kremlin has offered no explanation for removing Mr. Stepashin after just three months in office. In fact, Yeltsin said, there will be no major policy changes.
Yeltsin named Vladimir Putin, who heads the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the Soviet KGB, as acting premier and his own heir apparent. A onetime KGB spy in Germany, Putin later earned the nickname "the gray cardinal" for his behind-the-scenes management style as an aide to the mayor of St. Petersburg.
In his first public statement, Putin declared that he will run for the presidency next year and pledged clean elections. "I do not see a single reason to declare a state of emergency in the country," the radio station Echo Moskvi quoted him as saying, although analysts doubt the decision would be his to make.
Yeltsin has a history of overturning the apple cart when he seems cornered. In 1993, he sent tanks to crush a defiant parliament. In 1994-96 he waged a disastrous military campaign against the breakaway region of Chechnya. Since March 1998, he has abruptly dismissed four governments, plunging the country into its worst economic state since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Yeltsin said the appointment of Putin will ensure stability as Russia heads into parliamentary elections slated for Dec. 19. But analysts and opposition leaders agree that Yeltsin's decision to stage yet another government shuffle can only bring more political and financial turmoil.
"He's nuts," says Boris Makarenko, deputy director of the Center of Political Technologies think tank in Moscow. "It's an agony for Russia."
Protecting Yeltsin 'family'
But safeguarding the fragile economy doesn't appear to be Yeltsin's priority. Rather, he seems intent on ensuring the survival of himself and his inner circle - known as "the family" - after his eventual exit from power. Commentators say these top advisers include Yeltsin's daughter, Tatiana Dyachenko, tycoon Boris Berezovsky, Kremlin chief of staff Alexander Voloshin, and financier Roman Abramovich.
The president's biggest challenge is the emergence of a strong electoral coalition, headed by ambitious Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov. Last Wednesday, Mr. Luzhkov won the support of several powerful governors, including Tatarstan leader Mintimer Shaimiyev.
Some analysts believe the alliance could gain a majority in the powerful lower house of parliament, the Duma. The coalition may also be able to win the presidency, particularly if it can win over Yevgeny Primakov, the country's most popular politician, who was replaced by Stepashin as prime minister in May.
"The Luzhkov alliance is seen as a deadly threat to the [Yeltsin] family," says political analyst Nikonov. "Stepashin was not seen as active enough in persecuting the family's enemies."
Putin has a time limit too
Putin is a lawyer by training but has spent most of his career in the shadowy world of the security forces. He is a longtime Yeltsin loyalist, but unlike the shy and soft-spoken Stepashin is likely to be more ruthless against Kremlin opponents.
"For Yeltsin, a prime minister's main role is to be the instrument of the president's will," says Andrei Ryabov, an analyst with the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow. "Stepashin tried to be a referee between different political forces, and this is what got him fired. If Putin fails to build a new party of power that is capable of defeating Luzhkov, he too may be discarded within a few months."
Stepashin's firing brought condemnation from across the political spectrum. Even Mr. Berezovsky described the constant government changes as "a huge minus for the nation."
The Duma will be called back from its summer recess within a week to vote on Putin's appointment, which is expected to win easy approval. Under the Constitution, parliament must be dissolved if it fails to ratify the president's nominee three times. Analysts say deputies will be loath to risk the loss of parliamentary privileges as they head into an election campaign.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society