Yeltsin attacks `muddled' military

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The Independent Online
President Boris Yeltsin, in a long-awaited but lacklustre speech, yesterday defended the use of force to remove the "cancerous growth of the Grozny regime" but bewailed muddle in an ill-prepared and under-equipped military.

"The state can and must use the force of its authority to preserve sovereignty, independence and integrity. But our state turned out to be unprepared for the efficient use of its powers," Mr Yeltsin told a joint session of parliament in the Kremlin.

But the hour-long state of the nation address fell far short of advance billing that had suggested an energetic and decisive relaunch of a presidency battered by nine weeks of war in the Caucasus and three years of painful economic reform. Instead, Mr Yeltsin offered a jumbled mix of familiar, often contradictory themes: the need to combat inflation but spend more on social services; a determination to work with the West, but also to block expansion of Nato; ringing appeals for "open, understandable and predictable" decision-making but silence on his own secretive, baffling and highly unpredictable style of government.

"There was a lot more in the trailer than in the film itself," said one senior Western diplomat, who speculated that Mr Yeltsin's speech had been watered down from a punchier draft prepared by liberal advisers. His appearance, however, did help to calm concern raised by his unsteady gait and slurred speech at a meeting of the Commonwealth of Independent States in Alma- Ata a week ago. Though looking slightly puffy, he was entirely composed. "The first thing that surprised me was that president could deliver a speech lasting an hour," said Alvars Lezdinsh, deputy chairman of parliament's foreign affairs committee.

Mr Yeltsin also removed some of the uncertainty surrounding Russia's political calendar, promising to abide by a timetable of elections for parliament in December and for the presidency in June next year. A presidential approval rating hovering around 10 per cent has led to speculation that he might postpone or cancel the polls.

The main novelty was an admission of bungling in the planning and execution of the Chechen campaign and calls for a radical reorganisation of the armed forces. Also to blame was an "Afghan syndrome" which he said had sapped Russia's will to respond earlier to Chechnya's three-year-old declaration of independence. "We cherished for too long the hope that the situation would settle itself, that a compromise was possible. This was a fatal mistake. Such abscesses like the Medellin Cartel in Columbia, the Golden Triangle in south-east Asia and the criminal dictatorship in Chechnya are not resolved by themselves."

His most forceful comments on the failings of the military were made indirectly through reference to what he said was a public perception of "failures, setbacks and mistakes of the command". His own judgement was less harsh: "The general conclusion I make as commander-in-chief is that reform of the armed forces has been carried out unsatisfactorily." He made no mention of his defence minister, Pavel Grachev, and said time was needed to assess properly what he called "the Chechen anomaly".