Army tells Yeltsin to end power struggle

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The Independent Online
AMID DARK warnings from President Boris Yeltsin that Russia could fragment into dozens of rival states wracked by perpetual war, senior military commanders were reported yesterday to have demanded 'decisive action' to end a power struggle paralysing the country.

As Moscow swirled with rumours of some sort of crackdown, fuelled by President Yeltsin's escalating and increasingly baffling rhetoric, the Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, summoned Russian journalists to deny that plans were afoot for a putsch. Such rumours, he said, had 'no basis whatsoever'.

But according to a report in the daily Izvestia, Russia's top generals voiced alarm over Russia's political crisis and demanded measures to end it during a meeting yesterday in the Kremlin with President Yeltsin.

'The military expressed anxiety over the development of the political crisis in the country and demanded that the President take decisive action to overcome it,' the liberal and usually well-informed evening newspaper reported. It gave no further details.

The report followed a threat on Tuesday by President Yeltsin of a 'final option' of emergency measures to end his long-running feud with Russia's conservative parliament. 'I'm a brave man,' he told Nezavisimaya Gazeta when asked if he could carry out the threat. Mr Yeltsin followed up yesterday by warning that unless a power-sharing deal with the parliament is reached, Russia could splinter into 50 or 60 independent fiefdoms with 'war between them for centuries ahead', according to Tass newsagency.

Even by President Yeltsin's own standards of rhetorical bluster, the remarks are unusually doom-laden, though he balanced them with pleas for compromise and said: 'I don't think . . . even conservative duputies will go as far as to blow Russia apart.'

The Izvestia report gave no hint of what action the military might like to see to resolve a quarrel over whether Russia should have a strong French-style president or a powerful legislature as demanded by the parliamentary chairman, Ruslan Khasbulatov.

Liberals within the militry have voiced growing fears in recent weeks that far from backing President Yeltsin and his free-market policies, many officers tilt towards conservative forces within the Congress of People's Deputies and the smaller standing legislature, the Supreme Soviet.

The All-Russian Officers' Assembly - a hardline group of disenchanted middle-ranking officers - has defied warnings of disciplinary action to mount a campaign of open opposition to what they call 'Yeltsin's occupation regime'. Only the most extremist soldiers have joined the group but, according to Alexander Zhilin, editor-in-chief of the Armiya Rossii newspaper, they are a 'mirror of the real mood and sentiment in the army'.

A Defence Ministry spokeswoman confirmed that President Yeltsin had met military commanders yesterday but said the focus of their discussion had been the drafting of a new, post-Communist military and foreign policy doctrine.

While exaggerated, President Yeltsin's comments in recent days fit into a general pattern of fiery speeches and dramatic gestures ahead of key political events in Moscow. The next such event is scheduled for next week, when the Congress of People's Deputies is due to hold an extraordinary session to either approve a power-sharing deal to settle Russia's constitutional wrangling or endorse plans for a constitutional referendum next month. President Yeltsin has vowed to call his own plebiscite on who should rule Russia if Congress tries to cancel the referendum.

Yesterday's Izvestia report on the military's concern, however, puts the whole dispute in a new, and far more ominous, light. It also contradicts repeated statements by the Defence Minister that the military wants no part in political squabbles.

The armed forces are known to have balked at least twice since last October at suggestions by Mr Yeltsin's more radical advisers that Russia needed emergency presidential rule. On Tuesday, the Defence Minister suggested it would resist any such proposal now, too, saying the army 'should not and will not deviate from the centre'.

President Yeltsin's - and the military's - dilemma is that this centre is becoming increasingly unstable.