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MOSCOW (AP) -- President Boris Yeltsin fired Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin andthe entire Cabinettoday, and announced that the new premier is the man he'd like to see aspresident next year.
Yeltsin's unexpected move marked the fourth time in 17 months he has fired thegovernment. Yeltsinimmediately named Vladimir Putin, the head of the Federal Security Service, themain successor to theKGB, as acting prime minister.
Putin, 46, has spent most of his career in the country's security servicesandhas little experience with political or economic issues. But Yeltsin, whose termexpires next year, declared Putin would be hispreferred successor.
``I'm convinced he will serve the nation well while working in this high post,and Russians will be able toappraise Putin's human and business qualities. I trust him,'' Yeltsin said in atelevision address.
``I also want everyone who goes to the (presidential) polls in July 2000 to maketheir choice to trust him too.''
However, Yeltsin's backing is a mixed blessing. The president's approval ratinghas been in single digitsall year, and his endorsement could do a candidate more harm than good.
Still, Putin declared his candidacy in his first remarks after being nominatedfor the post.
``I will undoubtedly run for president,'' said Putin.
But first parliament must approve him as prime minister. A vote on his candidacymust take place within a week. Yeltsin appointed the deputy chief of the FederalSecurity Service, Nikolai Patrushev, as acting head of the agency.
Meanwhile, Yeltsin's critics said the president's unpredictable behavior madehim unfit to govern.
``It's hard to explain madness,'' Boris Nemtsov, a former deputy prime minister,told the Echo of Moscow radio station. ``The people have grown tired of watchingan ill leader who is not capable of doing his job.''
In Washington, the Clinton administration reacted cautiously, saying it is readyto work with Putin. ``Clearly it is within President Yeltsin's prerogative'' tomake such a change, said David Leavy, a nationalsecurity spokesman for the White House.
U.S. officials most recently worked with Putin in resolving Russia's role in theNATO peacekeepingforce in Kosovo, Leavy said.
Putin takes over as prime minister at an extremely volatile time.
Russia's security forces are trying to suppress an uprising by several hundredIslamic militants who have seized several villages in the southern republic ofDagestan. Russian forces fired rockets and artillery at the rebels over theweekend, but did not dislodge them. More clashes were expected in coming days.
Also, Russia's economy is still struggling following a financial crash lastyear. The changes did not augurwell for Russia's enfeebled economy because foreign lenders are unlikely torelease any new aid until anew government is in place. It may also hold up talks on rescheduling some ofRussia's mammoth foreigndebt.
Trading on the Russian stock exchange was suspended after the benchmark RussianTrading System index fell 11 percent in the first hour of trading. It laterresumed and the index rallied to 101.72, down 1.4 percent from Friday's close at103.15.
The Russian Constitution bars Yeltsin from a third term, and the Russian mediahas speculated that Yeltsin and his advisers are considering the possibility ofpostponing or canceling elections in a bid to extend his tenure.
The Kremlin has vigorously denied these claims. Yeltsin signed a decree todaythat sets parliamentaryelections for Dec. 19, as had been expected. Still, the latest upheaval adds toconjecture about Yeltsin'sintentions.
``In a year, the first Russian president will transfer his powers to a newlyelected president for the first timein history,'' Yeltsin said. ``You will elect your president in fair and honestelections.''
Yeltsin ousted Stepashin at a brief meeting early today at the Kremlin.Stepashin, who served for onlythree months, said he was not given any reason for his dismissal.
``This morning I visited the president, and he signed a decree on myresignation. He thanked me for goodwork -- and fired me,'' a somber-faced Stepashin told the Cabinet in a speechbroadcast on Russiantelevision.
The mild-mannered Stepashin, who has been staunchly loyal to Yeltsin, indicatedhe was not pleased with his dismissal.
``I honestly expressed my position concerning my resignation ... but this is hisright as the president and the commander-in-chief,'' Stepashin said. ``I toldthe president that I have been, am, and will remain with him until the end.''
Yeltsin, 68, has suffered a series of ailments in recent years and usuallyvisits the Kremlin only a coupledays a week for a few hours at a time. He has not set clear policy goals, andthe repeated politicalshake-ups have added to the sense of a government that is drifting without anyreal direction.
The Russian media has speculated that members of the president's inner circlewere pushing forStepashin's removal in order to advance their own candidate -- presumably Putin.
Putin was a KGB officer in Germany during the Soviet era and has spent much ofhis adult life in thesecurity services. Like Stepashin, he is a Yeltsin loyalist who had littlepolitical experience before being named to the prime minister's job.
Yeltsin did not publicly criticize Stepashin during his brief tenure in office,but the president did not givehim broad authority and Stepashin did not initiate any major changes.
``These three months haven't been wasted, we have managed to keep the situationin the country undercontrol. The ruble hasn't plunged contrary to many predictions,'' Stepashinsaid.
However, the ruble began to fall immediately upon news of his dismissal.
Throughout his tenure, Yeltsin has frequently reshuffled his staff and theturnover has become evenmore rapid in the past two years.
He dismissed Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin in March of last year, thensacked his successor SergeiKiriyenko last August and fired Yevgeny
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