Bungling Grachev given his marching orders

With the same confidence that one can describe vodka as Russia's favourite drink, Pavel Grachev is the country's most unpopular politician.

Tainted by allegations of corruption and largely responsible for the fiasco in Chechnya, the general , whose surname means rook, is loathed by the young and democratically-minded and by old Communists and the military alike. President Boris Yeltsin could have fired him from his post as Defence Minister a dozen times over. But he waited for the moment when sacrificing him would have the maximum political effect. That moment came yesterday.

General Grachev must have known the axe was about to fall. "Pavel Sergeyevich understands the President's decision," a Kremlin spokesman said. Russian television suggested he might be sent to Brussels as representative to Nato. There, he is known for having opposed air strikes on Bosnia and the eastward expansion of the Western alliance. At home, he is seen as a bungler and a butcher.

General Grachev was regarded by army colleagues as a mediocrity whose rise in 1992 to become Defence Minister was surprising. "He was one of the lads. We used to send him out for vodka," said one officer who served with him in Afghanistan. In his photo album he has a picture of Grachev, then a junior officer, lolling half-naked under a tree.

But the Defence Minister became a hate figure following revelations of financial abuses while the army was pulling out of Germany, and the murder of one of the journalists who exposed the scandal.

Dimitri Kholodov, of Moskovsky Komsomolets, had dug up so much dirt on how top officers enriched themselves by selling army supplies that a parliamentary enquiry had been scheduled. General Grachev was accused of accepting a Mercedes bought from funds that should have been spent on housing returning Russian soldiers. Russians nicknamed the minister "Pasha [the diminutive form of Pavel] Mercedes."

But the enquiry never took place. Kholodov was lured to a railway station by an anonymous phone call promising him a suitcase of documents.

The case contained a bomb, which killed him. General Grachev denied involvement but Kholodov's outraged editor pointed the finger of blame directly at him.

Thousands of Russians turned out for Kholodov's funeral. President Yeltsin was expected to sack General Grachev but did not. It was assumed he gave him a second chance because of his dog-like loyalty. Mr Yeltsin was indebted to the minister for having supported him when the President sent tanks against his opponents in the White House in 1993.

Soon the tanks were to roll again, this time into Chechnya. General Grachev was among those who persuaded Mr Yeltsin in December 1994 that force was the only way to deal with the separatist rebellion. "Give me a unit of paratroopers and we will sort out the Chechens in a couple of hours," General Grachev was reported to have boasted.

The war against the rebels has now been going on for 18 months, 30,000 civilians have been killed and the infrastructure of the region has been almost destroyed. Mr Grachev, indeed, has been only a liability to the Kremlin leader.