Despatches: Yeltsin under siege as generals launch political offensive

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A retired Russian general is leading a mass campaign to oust Boris Yeltsin. He is what the Kremlin fears most: a potential catalyst for the anger and despair in the ranks of the shattered Russian military. Nor is he the only general baying for Mr Yeltsin's scalp.

Like any other leader with a strong autocratic streak, Boris Yeltsin should be familiar with the rules of staying in power: keep the media in line and the generals happy. He has mastered the first, but is failing woefully with the second.

The latest khaki-clad figure to clomp on to the political battlefield is Lev Rokhlin, a veteran of Russia's disastrous ventures into Afghanistan and Chechnya. In his arsenal he has some explosive weaponry: a plan to tap the vast well of resentment and disillusionment in the country's crumbling military. Unleashed, he hopes this will exert enough public pressure on Mr Yeltsin to force him to quit.

This month in Moscow, General Rokhlin held the founding convention of a political movement to support the military and its industries. A crowd of more than 1,000, dominated by veterans, Cossacks, and nationalists, cheered him on. In the midst, inevitably, stood a stern-faced clutch of men from the Federal Security Services (FSB), a reminder of the official anxiety about the general's activities.

Opposition politics is a difficult business these days in Russia, where the ruling elite controls most of the mass media and voters have little concept of their power to exert pressure for change.

At present, it is tougher still. Boris Yeltsin, his health restored, has entered a hyperactive phase of his erratic presidency. In the last week alone, he met the US Vice-President, Al Gore, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, and Jacques Chirac of France. Barely a day goes by when he is not on the airwaves.

Yet the 50-year-old General Rokhlin - a former government supporter and chairman of the parliamentary defence committee - has touched a nerve. A hefty, balding man with a slight lisp, he is not especially charismatic. But he is persuasive, far from extreme, and a rare example of a Russia general whose reputation was enhanced by the Chechen war; Mr Yeltsin wanted to make him a Hero of Russia for his bravery during a battle for Grozny, but he turned the honour down.

He is gruff and candid. "Mr Yeltsin doesn't lead at all," he said, in an interview with The Independent, "At one time, he was systematically drunk. Then, he was ill for a long time. He did not fulfil a single one of his promises. He is systematically deceiving both the military and the people."

The last six years have been a catastrophe for the Russian military. It has been disgraced by scandals over massive corruption and brutality, and - above all - its humiliating defeat in Chechnya. It is ill-equipped, pathetically paid, overmanned, and unreformed. Yet, miraculously, the 1.7 million or so who struggle on under its banner have done little more than watch their decline unfold with horror.

General Rokhlin sees them as his chief constituency, the pressure point in his campaign for change. "We will do everything to stop the army going on to the streets, but at the same time we will raise their consciousness," he says.

High on his consciousness-raising agenda is what he sees as the lunacy of Mr Yeltsin's plans to cut the military down to 1.2 million in 18 months. He is, he stresses, no opponent to reform. But it should be systematic. There has been no consultation, no experimentation, no proper budgeting, he complains. Social provision for the victims has been a joke: 100,000 officers are homeless.

Plenty of Russians in uniform agree: in a mere three months his movement has established branches in 69 of Russia's 89 regions and republics. Opposition to Mr Yeltsin will be legal, he says - but so overwhelming that the President cannot but resign.

Although this is wishful thinking, his capacity to spark the military tinder-box is clearly alarming the Yeltsin administration. So much so, the general claims, that the Kremlin has embarked on a campaign to discredit him, circulating allegations of corruption and even plotting to lure him into a brawl. The president has set the task of removing the Rokhlin element, and his subordinates are doing all they can, he grimly remarks.

Lev Rokhlin is far from the only formerly loyal general who is calling for Mr Yeltsin to be tossed out. His number two in the new movement is Igor Rodionov, the ex-Minister of Defence who is still smarting from the experience of being summoned last May by Mr Yeltsin for a televised dressing- down in which he was fired. The minister was accused of failing to carry out military reforms, although it was scarcely his fault: he was given no security doctrine by which to work. Humiliated, he now seeks revenge.

So, too, does another ex-general who was thrown unceremoniously out of office. Alexander Lebed was hired by a vote-hungry Mr Yeltsin after he won 11 million votes in the first round of last year's presidential elections. Four months later he , too, was jettisoned. A popular figure in the army, he is intent on becoming the next president, although his star has faded lately; intriguingly, General Rokhlin appears to have attracted more military support in two months, than he managed in 12.

All three men represent views with which many Russians sympathise. None, however, is as diverting as the fourth ex-general to turn on his former master, Alexander Korzhakov, the president's former drinking buddy and bodyguard. His vengeance has come in print, a best-selling book which describes Mr Yeltsin as a boorish drunk, staggering from one crisis to another.

So far, Russians have gleefully bought 600,000 copies. In the Kremlin, presidential aides, fearful of seeming disloyal, reportedly pass copies around hidden amid state documents. Do these indignant generals represent a real threat to the revived Mr Yeltsin? Probably not. They are not a unified force (Lebed and Rokhlin deeply dislike one another). All the same, no one in the Kremlin can afford to overlook them.