Why the Guards decided to fall into line: Andrew Higgins wonders about the motives of the generals who acted to save their President's skin

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The Independent Online
WAS IT the impassioned appeal of a middle-aged Russian actress, delivered from a secret television studio in the middle of the night, or was it a meeting that same evening of Russia's top generals on the fifth floor of the Defence Ministry in Moscow? Was Boris Yeltsin a near-zombie or a dynamic model of take-charge leadership?

With the flames now out at the blackened White House and its defenders in solitary confinement at Lefortovo Prison, the post-mortem is under way to explain how a small, albeit rowdy, protest march on Sunday ignited an armed rebellion and, more important still, how close it came to driving Boris Yeltsin from the Kremlin.

The key, as during the 1991 putsch, was the military. Once T-80 tanks started hurling shells at the White House and no other unit moved in to stop them, President Yeltsin had won, just as he won two years earlier, when the same Kantemirov 4th Guards Tank Division defied similar orders to open fire on that same building.

Accounts diverge sharply, though, of why the military intervened to save Mr Yeltsin on Monday after refusing to do the same for the State Emergency Committee in August 1991. Mr Yeltsin has given only cursory thanks to the soldiers who rescued him, bracketing them together with firemen and policemen in a television address on Wednesday. Instead of praise, generals heard this: 'We need a complete reform of the army and the security bodies.'

Some describe scenes of panic at the Kremlin on Sunday. Mr Yeltsin was absent for much of the day, returning from his dacha at 6.15pm by helicopter. An armed rabble had already attacked the mayor's office next to the White House, killed several policeman and was on its way to Ostankino television studios in the north of the city.

Even now, the government is confused about what was going on. Mr Yeltsin gave this interpretation: 'What happened in Moscow last Sunday was not some kind of spontaneous demonstration.' His Security Minister, Sergei Stepashin, said the opposite only a few hours later. 'These events occurred spontaneously,' he said on television yesterday morning. The Ostankino television raid and attack on the mayor's office were, he said, 'not in the plans of those in the White House'.

If officials are so muddled about the nature of the threat, muddle in their response would seem inevitable. Izvestia newspaper claimed that Mr Yeltsin sent an envoy to the Taman 2nd Guards Motorised Rifle Division 50km (30 miles) from Moscow to rally support but he could not get past the gate.

Mr Yeltsin is also said to have got only 'evasive' replies when he phoned his Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev. According to this version, only when Mr Yeltsin saw the actress Liya Akhedzhakovka on a late-night crisis television chat-show, saying emotionally that the President was the only barrier to nationwide turmoil, did he act firmly: he phoned General Grachev back, told him he would shoulder all responsibility for any bloodshed and that a decree ordering military action was being drawn up. Such a scenario fits with scenes of chaos as described by Sergei Parkhomenko, a journalist in the Kremlin at the time.

Others, though, describe a more ordered process. Pavel Felgenhauer, military correspondent for Segodnya newspaper, said General Grachev spent most of the evening on the fifth floor of the Defence Ministry, also known as the White House, on Arbatskaya Square, near the Kremlin. It was here that the collegium of generals met and decided, after consultation with Russia's seven military districts, to back Mr Yeltsin unequivocally.

General Grachev himself had been a strong backer of the President from the moment, nearly two weeks earlier, that parliament voted to appoint a rival defence minister. If Mr Yeltsin fell, so would General Grachev.

By early morning on Monday there were 1,300 troops in the centre of Moscow - from the Kantemirov Division at Naro Fominsk, the Taman Division from Alabino, paratroops from Tula and Ryazan as well as some 180 officers from the Alfa and Vympel special-forces units. It was a mixed group but this probably reflects a desire to spread responsibility widely.

The units are among the most privileged. Unlike most others, they have been kept up to strength and their officers spared the humiliation of having to do menial duties because there are so few new conscripts.

Instead of Mr Yeltsin now being in debt to the military, it could well be that Monday's operation was repayment of a debt owed Mr Yeltsin, who visted both the Taman Division and the Interior Ministry's Dzerzhinsky unit in the run-up to his 21 September television speech dissolving parliament.

None the less, that the military had little enthusiasm for its bloody task in Moscow seems certain. 'On that tragic Monday the army had to do some business that had nothing to do with the army because the ones who had to do it failed,' said an article yesterday in Krasnaya Zvezda, official organ of the Russian Defence Ministry.

The Interior Ministry has been widely criticised for its performance on Sunday, when its force buckled. Riot police, mostly unarmed and unprepared, simply ran away. Izvestia newspaper quoted a deputy chief of a Moscow police district complaining bitterly of contradictory orders from the top: 'When I came to understand the bosses were just waiting to see who will gain the upper hand I decided not to follow orders.' He said riot police were made more jittery by promises of a pay rise: 'You have heard how animals get nervous before an earthquake. We get nervous when they raise our pay. It is a sign of trouble.' The Interior Minister, Viktor Erin, yesterday acknowledged 'failures in certain areas'.

With the Interior Ministry in disarray and parts of Moscow slipping into anarchy, General Grachev could rally his generals: 'All the military understood the situation in the right way and realised the necessity of decisive actions,' he said on Tuesday. Street chaos provided a fig leaf of neutrality: this was not a political act to save Mr Yeltsin, said Krasnaya Zvezda. 'The army is out of politics . . . With the bitter experience of August 1991, servicemen believed they would never have to introduce their tanks into the streets of Moscow.' On Monday, though, they did. Why? 'Someone had to save people, the city and the state itself from chaos.' And, in the end, they decided to save Boris Yeltsin too.

(Photograph omitted)