A Kremlin 'coup'

MALCOLM GRAY July 1 1996

A Kremlin 'coup'

MALCOLM GRAY July 1 1996

A Kremlin 'coup'


Talk of civil war. Reports of troop movements. High-level dismissals. Charges of a thwarted coup in the Kremlin. That was Moscow last week—just when everything was supposed to be going smoothly in the protracted exercise of choosing a new president. To be sure, Boris

Yeltsin did win the first round of the presidential election, finishing ahead of Communist rival Gennady Zyuganov by three percentage points-35 to 32-in a 10-candidate race. And the two will now go head-to-head in a runoff scheduled for July 3. But Yeltsin's firststage triumph was quickly overshadowed by a struggle for power

and influence among his closest advisers that ended in an old-fashioned purge. Apart from everything else, the disarray at the highest lev els of government again exposed the shallow roots of democracy in Russia. - -

The unexpected dramas began with the surprise arrival of Alexander Lebed, a widely popular former general who finished third, at 15 per cent in the June 16 balloting. In a bold bid to strengthen his advantage over the Communists, Yeltsin persuaded the 46-year-old ex-paratrooper to join his government as a national security czar. “I’m ready to start tomorrow,” Lebed responded, and listed his priorities as “establishing a civilized order in the country, reforming the armed service and crushing crime.” But no one thought Lebed’s new broom would start work so soon and so close to the centre of authority. For his opening act the gravel-voiced former boxer got Yeltsin to fire unpopular De-




fence Minister Pavel Grachev, Lebed’s longtime rival. The general ¡5 followed that up by siding with a liberal faction of Yeltsin reform-1 ers and securing the sudden dismissal of three powerful Kremlin hardliners. According to Yeltsin aide and pro-reform spokesman | Anatoly Chubais, Lebed had averted a palace coup by advisers § who wanted to cancel the second round of elections and keep | Yeltsin in power as a figurehead. Hailing the outcome as a victory 5 for democracy, Chubais declared: “Lebed’s appointment is the last nail in the coffin of communism. And the dismissals buried illusions that a military coup is possible in Russia.”

The moves were also political masterstrokes that seemed to signal a remarkable new partnership in Russia. Earlier, Yeltsin had welcomed Lebed to the Kremlin by announcing that he regarded the general as his likely successor. The destinies of the two men have been intertwined since a failed coup in Moscow in August, 1991. As the commander of an elite airborne division, Lebed provided Yeltsin with the military muscle he needed to rally Russians against hardline Communists. In Moldova the following year, Lebed became a Russian nationalist hero by intervening in a bloody civil war between Slav separatists and ethnic Moldovans. He sided with the Slavs and imposed a shaky but lasting peace in the region. Since then, the 65year-old Yeltsin has indulgently tolerated criticism from a man who could be a younger version of himself—a burly, bass-voiced populist with a habit of defying authority.

Last week, Lebed again threw in his lot with Yeltsin—and quickly consolidated a position as one of the most powerful men in Russia. He first rejected matching offers of posts in a Zyuganov administration. Explained Lebed: “I was facing two ideas—an old one that has shed lots of blood and the new one, which is being implemented very badly at the moment but has a future. I chose the new one.” After that boost to Yeltsin’s re-election hopes, the new security chief tactfully muted his outspoken criticism of NATO’s expansion plans in eastern Europe, which he had once said could lead to a “Third World War.” Now, he said, NATO was welcome to expand, since “we will announce to the whole world that we are not fighting anyone any more.”

Lebed then set about ensuring the loyalty of the army—in sensational fashion. On June 18, he accused five generals of plotting a coup to keep Grachev in office. When Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin bluntly described the coup reports as nonsense, Lebed toned down his remarks. According to his revised version, five generals had put troops on alert in an attempt to pressure Yeltsin into retaining the dismissed defence minister. “I believe that they will now have to resign,” he said. Commented one Western military attaché in Moscow: “There wasn’t any coup. This was just Lebed’s way of neutralizing Grachev loyalists. Crude but effective.”

That was only the start of Lebed’s housecleaning in an intrigue-

riddled Kremlin where conservatives and reformers have fought for the past œ two years to influence Yeltsin. Alexan£ der Korzhakov, a personal bodyguard g who commanded the 40,000-member i presidential security service, was one | of the so-called hawks. Aligned with *

Yeltsin’s longtime fishing and drinking | pal were first vice-premier Oleg §

Soskovets, a man with strong ties to

Russia’s vast military-industrial complex, and Mikhail Barsukov, head of the successor spy agency to the KGB. With Grachev, they were key members of the so-called party of war—advisers who prompted Yeltsin to mount the unpopular conflict against separatists in Chechnya, which Lebed has long opposed. They also wanted Yeltsin to avoid the uncertainty of an election by putting it off indefinitely and forming a government of national unity.

But Yeltsin insisted on going ahead with the voting. He underlined his choice by bringing in reformist Chubais to replace Soskovets as campaign director. Unlike Soskovets, who favors subsidizing Russia’s troubled industries, Chubais is a free-market

proponent who headed Russia’s controversial privatization program. The men who held those opposing viewpoints coexisted uneasily in the inner circle, yoked together only by their shared loyalty to Yeltsin. The flashpoint was reached at 5 p.m. on June 19, when Korzhakov ordered the arrest of two campaign aides from the reformer camp on suspicion of stealing nearly $700,000. When he learned about the incident that evening, Chubais said, he immediately contacted Lebed and asked him to take control of the security service’s communications, neutralizing Korzhakov.

During the course of the sleepless night, the economist and the former paratrooper worked the phones—calling Chernomyrdin among others—and managed to gain the release of the two detained aides. Then, they approached Yeltsin and outlined a startling plot: Korzhakov had ordered the arrests as the first stage of a plan to disrupt the elections. Surprisingly enough, Yeltsin accepted Chubais’s version of events and promptly fired his aides for exceeding their authority. That kind of swift, dramatic act is a Yeltsin trademark: when circumstances warrant a change, he ruthlessly discards aides as casually as other men change shirts. Chubais himself has firsthand experience of the Yeltsin chop. When progovernment candidates fared badly in December’s parliamentary elections, Yeltsin blamed it on discontent with privatization, singled out Chubais and dumped him from the cabinet.

Now, in a move that seems designed to win back reformers who deserted him over such hardline policies as the war in Chechnya, Yeltsin has swung back to the liberals. But while Chubais did his best to portray the Kremlin showdown as a win for reform, Yeltsin’s opponent in the runoff painted an administration in total disarray. Warned Zyuganov: “This fuss may still be aimed at disrupting the second round.”

To Zyuganov’s chagrin, however, most of the first-round also-rans began shifting support to Yeltsin. Svyatoslav Fyodorov, a wealthy eye surgeon who gained less than one per cent, personally endorsed the president. Fourth-place finisher Grigory Yavlinsky, a strong reformist who managed

Yeltsin purges the hardliners in a new election alliance

seven per cent, asked his supporters not to vote Communist. Ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who came in ' a disappointed fifth with 5.7 per cent, said his followers would not support Zyuganov under any circumstances. ‘They are my voters and they will vote the way I tell them,” he added in characteristic style. Keeping mum was Yeltsin’s old rival Mikhail Gorbachev, who won less than half a per cent. In any case, complained Zyuganov, “an electorate cannot be inherited like serfs.” But his solution did not sound like the proposal of a man confident of victory: he called for a coalition government.

The triumphant reformers had other ideas. During the course of a few tense hours, they ousted an unpopular clique and showed off Lebed as a man more than ready to meet any challenge to his authority. “This event was as important as the August, 1991, coup or Yeltsin’s clash with parliament in October, 1993,” said Andrei Piontkowsky, a political analyst at the independent Centre for Strategic Studies in Moscow. With praise for their victory flowing from a wide spectrum of democrats and nationalists, the unlikely duo of Chubais and Lebed are confident that they have engineered another win at the polls for Boris Yeltsin. □