Russian Crisis: Past and present fight to death on Moscow's streets

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The Independent Online
THE FATE of Russia - and of far more besides - will hinge on the answer to the terrifying question raised shortly before 7pm last night by Ruslan Khasbulatov, Speaker of Russia's legislature.

'Troops are moving,' he declared, grim security guards with sawn-off rifles at his side, an audience of excited, nervous deputies fidgeting before him in the main chamber of the White House parliament building. 'For the moment it is not clear whose orders they are following, those of Vladislav Achalov or those of Pavel Grachev.'

In other words, who is in charge of the world's second most powerful military: General Grachev, the Defence Minister appointed by President Boris Yeltsin or Colonel- General Achalov, a cashiered Soviet officer appointed by parliament to do the same job?

At stake are 3 million soldiers, 10,000 strategic nuclear warheads, and power to decide who sits in the Kremlin - whether Boris Yeltsin, Alexander Rutskoi or some other figure, some Russian Bonaparte who can impose order on the chaos spreading across Moscow last night.

There is no shortage of would-be military strongmen, disgruntled former officers sacked or retired from the Soviet army and now convinced that their hour has come.

Among them is Albert Makashov, the embittered former officer who last night led some 300 armed followers in an assault on the studios of Ostankino television. His main achievement prior to this was a claim that all entrance tunnels to the White House had been mined with explosives. Since the crisis first began on 21 September when Mr Yeltsin declared parliament defunct and ordered new elections in December, Russia has two defence ministers.

The White House is awash with a plethora of militias. They are armed, according to official figures, with more than 2,000 guns and grenade-launchers. Their arsenal is now even bigger. Scores of young men in military fatigues last night poured into the White House clutching yet more weapons. But few of them, if any, seemed regular soldiers - rather freelance extremists.

Crowds outside parliament cheered yesterday at the apparent defection of some 200 young men in blue uniforms, stripped of their weapons, their fur hats shorn of their state insignia. Their glum, frightened faces, though, were those of captives rather than willing accomplices.

Nor were they soldiers. They belonged to the Interior Ministry, which, in keeping with Soviet practice, maintains its own para- military force, armed and equipped with armoured personnel carriers it is true, but still puny compared with the former Red Army.

Boris Yeltsin, mindful of the resentment stirred two years ago when hardline putschists brought tanks into the streets of Moscow, had avoided calling on the military. He has relied on the Dzerzhinsky Division, a crack Interior Ministry unit stationed only a few miles north-east of Moscow. Humiliated and defeated yesterday by protesters, the division is now deeply divided. Some 8,000 men were last night reported to be meeting at their barracks in Balachira to decide which side to back.

With the Interior Ministry crumbling, despite protestations of loyalty from its minister, Viktor Yerin, President Yeltsin must now place his future in the hands of Russia's restive, demoralised but, at least so far, loyal armed forces. In the first few days of the crisis, General Grachev gave a remarkably candid explanation of why he had backed Mr Yeltsin. He initially declared merely his neutrality, as in March when Mr Yeltsin tried to impose 'special rule' but backed down when it became clear that support in the security forces was wavering.

But then parliament, in a late-night session in the White House, voted to unseat not only Mr Yeltsin but General Grachev and the ministers of security and interior too. This, General Grachev explained, was the turning-point: 'From the moment that the new government removed me, I stopped being subject to it . . . I am humiliated and insulted.'

Will General Grachev now reconsider? More probable is the defection of lower-ranking officers, a process parliament has moved quickly to encourage. No sooner had protesters smashed through a cordon of barbed wire and armed troops around the White House yesterday afternoon, than Mr Khasbulatov had issued a formal appeal, printed on leaflets and promptly distributed around the city, to 'generals and admirals of the Russian army and navy'.

It read: 'Dear Comrades. You took an oath of loyalty to the people and constitution. You should guard them. Come over the Square of Free Russia, where the freedom, honour and dignity of people have been violated and where the constitution has been thrown away as (a) piece of rubbish.'

Mr Yeltsin's dilemma is that the wording is little different from that he himself used in August 1991 when he led defiance of a hardline coup backed by the defence minister, Dmitri Yazov.

Who now commands the loyalty of the ranks? General Grachev, a former Afghan war paratrooper who has so far been unstinting in his support for Mr Yeltsin? Or General Achalov, another Afghan veteran notorious for past involvement in some of the most ignominious episodes of Soviet military - the 1991 putsch, the shooting of protesters in the Azeri capital of Baku in 1990 and brutal assaults on nationalists in the Baltics.

For the past 12 days, General Achalov has been preparing for last night, holed up on the 13th floor of the White House with a rag-tag band of warriors - young men hardened by battles in Abkhazia, Moldova and other wars across the former Soviet empire.

But it is Alexander Rutskoi, not General Achalov, who has the best chance of turning the military. Twice captured in Afghanistan, respected among soldiers and untainted, at least until recent days, by associations with the Union Officers, Russian National Unity, Unity and other extremist groups.

(Photograph omitted)