Russian MPs on offensive over Grachev scandal

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The Moscow establishment is closing ranks behind the Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, whom Russian journalists accuse of being linked to the murder last week of a young investigative reporter The reporter, Dmitri Kholodov, was on the tail of a vast army corruption scandal that he believed led to the minister. The journalists fear the killing and the official response to it mean that glasnost, or freedom of speech, is under grave threat in Russia. General Grachev had been due to explain himself to parliament yesterday, but instead he was away on a trip to the Russian far east. Yet far from expressing any annoyance with him, some MPs came up with a draft appeal to the press to stop what they called 'the media's broad accusatory campaign' against the military top brass.

'We are aware that the army is living through a difficult period,' it said, adding that military discipline and combat capacity were at risk because of recent hard times. 'In the light of this, we regard as extremely unethical and dangerous for national security the attempts to foment anti-army sentiment by spreading unconfirmed rumours and hurling accusations at commanding personnel.' Parliament as a whole did not adopt the draft as a resolution, and the general will still have to address the deputies in the near future.

President Boris Yeltsin has already gone on record as ruling out any possibility that General Grachev could have been involved in the killing of Kholodov. The 27-year-old reporter died when a briefcase he picked up from an intelligence-service contact, believing it contained compromising evidence against the army, exploded as he opened it. General Grachev was, according to the President, 'a major statesman and probably the best Defence Minister our country has had in the last 10 years'.

General Grachev himself has said that the journalist's murder was a provocation designed to remove him from ministerial office. He has hinted that those behind it were members of the hardline opposition who could not forgive him for having helped Mr Yeltsin to put down their uprising with tanks last October.

None of which impresses the Moscow press corps, least of all the staff of the Moskovsky Komsomolets newspaper, for which Kholodov worked as defence correspondent.

Ignoring a notice from the general that he intends to sue the newspaper, the former organ of the Young Communist League has refused to withdraw allegations that the murder had the blessing of senior leaders of the military and former KGB. It has also continued to publish charges of corruption in the Western Army Group, which withdrew from Germany in August.

In an article published in June, Kholodov had already spoken of 'train-loads of military property' disappearing into a 'Bermuda triangle' and specifically accused General Grachev of receiving an illegally purchased Mercedes limousine. Last Thursday, Moskovsky Komsomolets went further and said the car had been bought from the proceeds of the sale of military property which should have gone into a fund to provide housing for soldiers returning from Germany. General Grachev was a 'thief who should be in jail rather than in command of the Defence Ministry', the newspaper said.

Kholodov had written that Mr Yeltsin himself knew about General Grachev's car. But the editor of Moskovsky Komsomolets, Pavel Gusev, evidently thought it wise not to antagonise the Kremlin leader when he sent an open letter to him earlier this week, expressing continuing confidence in the President but begging him to deal with the Defence Minister and to defend journalists.

Russian reporters work in very difficult conditions. Despite the policy of glasnost introduced by the former Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, politicians still lean on them. Poorly paid, they are also vulnerable to pressure from shady businessmen to disguise advertising as reporting. If they dare to speak out against the criminal mafia, their lives are at risk.

And now, it seems, criticising the political elite is equally dangerous.

All that Mr Yeltsin has suggested by way of protection for journalists is that they be issued with special licences over and above their accreditation. He has not said how these pieces of paper, or at best laminated cards, are supposed to deflect bombs and bullets.