End of the road for Russia's party of war

The sacked Kremlin trio exerted a powerful influence over Boris Yeltsin, Helen Womack reports

Whether they were really trying to stop the second round of the Russian presidential election or whether they were set up by Boris Yeltsin's campaign team, we will probably never know. But the result of their sacking yesterday is clear.

The bodyguard Alexander Korzhakov, the secret policeman Mikhail Barsukov, and the defence industry bureaucrat Oleg Soskovets have lost the powerful influence they exerted over their boss, which made despairing reformers lament that the Kremlin was in the hands of latter-day Rasputins.

Along with Pavel Grachev, the defence minister dismissed on Tuesday when General Alexander Lebed was named as Mr Yeltsin's new security supremo, two of the three men formed the so-called "party of war" which persuaded the President to send troops to Chechnya in December 1994. That tragic error threw the whole of the Russian reform process off course and many democrats deserted Mr Yeltsin.

Chechnya was only the most dramatic manifestation of the influence of this shadowy coterie which had more access to Mr Yeltsin than ministers, especially during his two bouts of heart disease last year. General Korzhakov, 46, played tennis, swam and drank vodka with him and was said to be the real number two, not the Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin.

Gen Korzhakov, aided by his cronies, bugged the telephones of ministers, interfered in economic policy, allegedly ran a slush fund from the profits of oil, gold and diamond exports and created a "think-tank" which spread disinformation.

Meanwhile, his deputy, Major General Georgy Rogozin, lulled the ailing Mr Yeltsin into a sense of well-being by ordering horoscopes for him.

Gen Korzhakov, with too much to lose from changing the status quo, was never keen on the elections taking place and in May said they should be cancelled to prevent bloodshed. He was rebuked by Mr Yeltsin.

It may be his strength as a human being, but it is his weakness as a politician that Mr Yeltsin is loyal to his friends. Gen Korzhakov, a bull- like figure with dark, greasy hair plastered across his bald pate, was an old friend.

A career KGB officer, he was assigned to protect Mr Yeltsin when he came to the capital from Sverdlovsk in 1985, at the invitation of Mikhail Gorbachev, to run the Moscow branch of the Communist Party. When in 1987 Mr Gorbachev hounded Mr Yeltsin from office, the bodyguard showed unusual courage in standing by his disgraced boss.

At another difficult moment, during the attempt by hardliners to overthrow Mr Gorbachev in August 1991, Korzhakov was at Mr Yeltsin's side on a tank trying to rally the crowds to resist the putsch.

When Mr Yeltsin took over the Kremlin, he rewarded his faithful sidekick by making him head of the presidential security service, a body which officially has 800 men, although press reports say it is 4,000. He also put him in charge of the crack Alpha anti-terrorist unit.

Mr Yeltsin's trust was not misplaced. During the parliamentary uprising of October 1993, the bodyguard played a key role. In his memoirs, Mr Yeltsin wrote: "Alexander Korzhakov and I have been inseparable since 1985 ... He is a very decent, intelligent, strong and courageous person." Alexander Kazannik, a former prosecutor, put it another way. "I have the impression he decides everything in the Kremlin. Everyone knows that to drag through a doubtful decision or sign an illegal decree, you have to go to Gen Korzhakov."

Like Mr Yeltsin, Gen Korzhakov is also a man who does not forget his friends, which is where Mikhail Barsukov, head of the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the domestic departments of the KGB, comes in. In June 1995, after a disastrous incident in which Chechen gunmen took hundreds of patients hostage in the hospital in the southern Russian town of Budyonnovsk, parliament was screaming for cabinet heads. Sergei Stepashin, head of the FSB, was fired and a successor was needed.

Gen Barsukov, 48, the head of the Kremlin guard, was appointed because he was a protege of Gen Korzhakov. Given his lack of wider experience, it was inevitable he would foul up, which he did in January when he took a sledgehammer to crack a nut in the Dagestani village of Pervomaiskoye where Chechen rebels again held hostages.

The First Deputy Prime Minister, Oleg Soskovets, the third man to lose his job yesterday, is not such a colourful character, but the reformer Anatoly Chubais, who accused the three of planning a coup, called him their "spiritual father".

Another influential figure from the old Yeltsin entourage remains in place for the time being - the President's tennis coach, Shamil Tarpishev. He is linked to Boris Fyodorov, head of the National Sports Fund, who was shot in the stomach this week and is now fighting for his life. Conspiracy theorists suggest that somebody wanted him dead lest he reveal too much.

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