Kremlin palace guards at war after Yeltsin ditches his election financier

Boris Yeltsin has fired a leading member of the small clan of immensely wealthy businessmen close to the Kremlin. As Phil Reeves reports, there is now a split among his most powerful supporters. So far, it only involves words - but sticks and stones could follow.

After months of rumblings, tension within the Kremlin erupted into full view yesterday when Boris Yeltsin fired one of the tycoons who helped secure his re-election. Boris Berezovsky, one of a handful of Russian financiers who joined forces to bankroll Mr Yeltsin's campaign last year, was dismissed as deputy secretary of the Security Council, producing a rift in the ruling elite surrounding the President.

His demise was a result of a conflict with Russia's two powerful deputy prime ministers, who spearheaded the troubled transition to Western-style economics, Anatoly Chubais and Boris Nemtsov. Hours after Mr Berezovsky's dismissal, flew between the opposing camps. Mr Berezovsky accused the two ministers of "constantly trying to steer" ORT, one of Russia's leading television channels which, though formally state-owned, he controls.

He also implied Mr Yeltsin had been bamboozled into firing him, remarks which, despite Mr Yeltsin's return to health, echo last year's allegations that he is out of touch. He told Echo Moskvi radio station that the situation is "what we have been fighting against - one in which an official may enter the President's office and have any decree signed."

Mr Berezovsky's media stable includes several other leading publications - notably, the newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazeta and the respected magazine Ogonyuk - which seem likely to form the vanguard in a damaging media war between pro-Yeltsin factions. Mr Nemtsov applauded the firing as "absolutely right", saying Mr Berezovsky had sought to combine his government work with business activities.

From the moment he entered government, Mr Berezovsky was the source of controversy. However, although his job was widely perceived as a reward from Mr Yeltsin for his support last year, he is credited with furthering the peace deal in Chechnya.

While in government, he claimed to have suspended his business activities but tensions surfaced earlier this year when he lost out in a bid for a stake in the state telecommunications monopoly Svyazinvest - which went to a consortium which included the international financier George Soros. His outrage was duly reflected in the coverage given to the issue by his media outlets.

The issue now is whether he will turn his considerable media fire-power against the President. Yesterday Mr Berezovsky indicated the opposite, saying there was no alternative to Mr Yeltsin.