Intrigue at tsar's court

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The Independent Online
Two lessons can be drawn from the startling events in Moscow on Wednesday night and yesterday morning: the bad news and the good news.

The bad news is that the KGB, despite undergoing various reorganisations and renaming itself the Federal Security Service, remains a dangerous and largely unreformed institution. The good news is that Russia's young democracy, for all its flaws, is strong enough to withstand challenges from internal enemies such as this.

The three hawks sacked by Boris Yeltsin yesterday may not have been planning a full-scale coup, as alleged by the President's liberal supporters, but their contempt for democratic politics is no secret.

Mikhail Barsukov, Alexander Korzhakov and Oleg Soskovets belonged to a Kremlin faction that promoted the interests of Russia's extensive state security apparatus and the military-industrial complex. They loathed the liberals and they feared the arrival of Alexander Lebed in Mr Yeltsin's administration.

But the drama in Moscow was about more than faction-fighting. Mr Yeltsin's reformist allies say that the Barsukov- Korzhakov clique had hoped to engineer a crisis that would have forced the cancellation of the second round of Russia's presidential election, to be held on 3 July.

Had the plot succeeded, the plotters would surely have done their level best to ensure that Russia never had a free election again. In that sense, freedom itself was under direct assault in Moscow this week.

It must disturb the Western governments that, more than four years after the Soviet Union's collapse, so many of the most important players in Russian politics appear to be committed to curbing democracy or abolishing it altogether.

Look one way, and you see the Barsukovs and Korzhakovs. Look another way , and you see the Communists and extreme nationalists. Look a third way, and you see the leading liberal in the presidential election, Grigory Yavlinsky, winning only 7.4 per cent of the vote.

But if that is the bad news, the good news is that Russian democracy, a frail plant growing in the stony ground of 1,000 years of authoritarianism, has successfully survived its latest ordeal.

Like the KGB-inspired coup against Mikhail Gorbachev in August 1991, and like the uprising at the Russian parliament building in October 1993, the Barsukov-Korzhakov plot, if such it was, came quickly to grief.

Mr Yeltsin deserves some credit for this. Even when he was way down in the opinion polls last month, he refused to listen to Mr Korzhakov's siren voice urging him to cancel the election.

Yet the conditions that allowed this week's events to take shape were inherent in the system and style of government adopted by Mr Yeltsin after the crisis of October 1993.

Unfettered by the national legislature or the courts, he rules Russia by issuing decrees and with the help of a network of largely unaccountable presidential agencies and advisers. The atmosphere, like that of a tsar's court, is ideal for intrigue. It fosters the illusion in Russia's security structures that democracy can be done away with.