Duma Approves Stepahsin As Russian Prime Minister

MOSCOW (Reuters)–Acting Russian Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin won approval from parliament on Wednesday after pledging tough measures to improve the dreary living standards of millions affected by post-communist turmoil.

But parliamentarians said the endorsement by the State Duma was largely a result of a desire to avoid further confrontation with President Boris Yeltsin. And they were unenthusiastic about the new premier’s prospects of dragging Russia out of crisis.

Stepashin said it would take him about a week to form a government and immediately embarked on a two-hour meeting with Yeltsin. The president has clearly emerged stronger from a turbulent week marked by his sacking of Stepashin’s predecessor Yevgeny Primakov and an unsuccessful attempt by parliament to impeach him.

"This means one thing. We are united by concern for our homeland for our people so that our country may at last become normal–civilized–wealthy–prosperous and great," Stepashin told the Duma after the vote.

"Any leader needs knowledge and goodwill and our government has both of these things. I believe we need two more things–honor and dignity."

An initial count showed Stepashin–nominated by Yeltsin last week–had secured 293 votes with 55 against. But the tally was later corrected by officials to 301 after eight deputies said their votes had not been counted in time.

The outcome avoided a showdown in which the unpredictable Yeltsin could have dissolved the chamber and called a general election if the Duma had rejected his candidate three times.

Yeltsin’s spokesman Alexander Kotenkov described the outcome as an "indisputable victory for the president."

Members of parliament were not so sure.

"We believe that with the country half in ruins we need some sort of stability," Vladimir Ryzhkov of the centrist Our Home is Russia–the group closest to Yeltsin–told ORT television.

"Under our constitution it is the president who decides whom to appoint as prime minister. There is no point in resisting."

The Duma’s communist chairman–Gennady Seleznyov gave credit to the new premier for his good intentions. "But it is not yet clear what kind of team he’ll have–how it will be formed and how they will achieve things," he told Interfax news agency.

In his address to the chamber–Stepashin repeated pledges to deal with criminals crippling the economy. But he dismissed media comparisons with former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

"I am not General Pinochet," he told the chamber. "My name is Stepashin."

He made clear he planned no major changes to Primakov’s policies and urged the Duma quickly to pass laws to secure the release of International Monetary Fund loans.

"Without the quick acceptance of these laws–it is not possible to ease Russia’s foreign debt burden," he said.

He said it was vital to tighten discipline in pursuing economic reforms–reducing the black economy and stopping economic crimes and illegal capital flight. Reforms–he said–must not harm the welfare of ordinary people.

"The people of Russia expect concrete and positive results from the government. They are waiting for an improvement in their lives as soon as possible."

"I am sure that–with the parliament’s backing–the government is capable of meeting these hopes," he said.

Stepashin’s endorsement crowned days of consultations to win over a variety of groups–primarily communists and their allies smarting at the twin setbacks inflicted on them by Yeltsin.

Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov set the tone for the debate after Stepashin presented his program by suggesting that his group had accepted he would become prime minister.

The leader of the liberal "Yabloko" group–economist Grigory Yavlinsky–said only some of his members would back Stepashin "because we oppose anyone else the president might propose."

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