Now Boris Yeltsin Has His Own 'Mini-Me'

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Boris Nikolayevich has an heir! No, the increasingly decrepit President Yeltsin hasn’t improbably sired a late-in-life son; on Monday he named his intelligence chief as his sixth prime minister in 17 months –- and made clear that Vladimir Putin should succeed him as President. "Russians greet changes of government with a shrug, but the country is reeling on Yeltsin’s announcement that his new prime minister is his chosen successor as president," says TIME Moscow correspondent Andrew Meier. "His vanity and self-preservation instinct has never allowed Yeltsin to previously name an heir."

Yeltsin gave up trying to govern years ago –- instead, like some giddy czar in a Lewis Carroll nightmare, he simply reminds Russia of his authority every few months by rousing himself long enough to lop off the head of his government, before returning to the hospital or sanatorium. The latest victim: Sergei Stepashin, a bumbling but loyal bureaucrat who served a full three months as prime minister. Of course, with a secessionist rebellion underway in the southern Russian republic of Dagestan, there may be some good reasons for getting rid of Stepashin. After all, he authored Moscow’s clumsily brutal, yet ineffective, response to the uprising in neighboring Chechnya five years ago. But Yeltsin has never had any problem signing off on a little butchery in the Caucasus, and Stepashin had just returned from Washington having secured an IMF loan. "This was the most inexplicable of all Yeltsin’s decisions," says Meier. "Stepashin was a loyal servant, and Putin is simply a poor man’s Stepashin." Putin now contemplates entering the presidential race with the endorsement of the deeply unpopular Yeltsin, which is widely viewed as akin to the kiss of death. That’s if he survives the political life of a Yeltsin prime minister, which these days, is increasingly nasty, brutish and short.