Yeltsin `planning to sack sick Grachev'

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The Independent Online
President Boris Yeltsin, seeking scapegoats for the botched Chechnya campaign, is planning to sack the Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, the intelligence chief, Sergei Stepashin, and two deputy prime ministers, the daily Izvestia reported yesterday.

Mr Yeltsin, who celebrated his 64th birthday this week, is due to make an annual State of the Nation address to both houses of parliament this month. Kremlin officials have said he intends to reassure both Russians and the West by reiterating his commitment to economic reform, especially radical privatisation.

Izvestia suggested the eve of that speech might be the time for the sacking of a group Russian liberals have dubbed "the party of war".

"Competent sources say Nikolai Yegorov was the first victim of the unsuccessful military campaign [in Chechnya]," Izvestia, said, referring to the former Nationalities Minister who was relieved of his duties last week, ostensibly because he had pneumonia. "The next victims, Kremlin specialists say, will without doubt be Pavel Grachev, Sergei Stepashin, and probably two deputy prime ministers as well." Izvestia did not name them.

The newspaper, once a government organ but now close to Western standards of journalism, said General Grachev bore most responsibility for the Chechnya disaster.

"He persuaded the President that victory would be swift in Grozny and lulled his sense of danger. He also disoriented the army, which did not realise all the difficulties of the military operation to come."

If Mr Yeltsin does wish to get rid of his loyal but embarrassing Defence Minister, he has a ready-made pretext, for General Grachev is not in the best of health. This week he returned to hospital for a check-up over an apparently stress-related illness he first suffered last autumn during an army corruption scandal.

But Mr Stepashin, head of the Federal Counter-Intelligence Service, successor to the KGB, is robust.

A clean-out of the politicians running Moscow's effort to recover Chechnya would, however, suggest one of two things: either Mr Yeltsin has another team willing to risk their reputations by taking over in mid- operation, or he has developed a new policy towards the separatist Muslim region.

There is little evidence of either, so he may well have to live with the unpopular "party of war", at least until they are a little closer to finishing the job they set out to do on 11 December.

Despite the capture of Grozny's presidential palace, the army remains bogged down in street fighting with the Chechens, who are ready to move to the mountains and launch a guerrilla war if they lose the city.

Their leader, General Dzhokhar Dudayev, is still at large despite Russia's best efforts to capture him.

Liberal advisers, whom Mr Yeltsin perhaps now wishes he had heeded, warned him that the Chechens would resist Moscow with all the ferocity shown by the Afghan mujahedin in their struggle against the Soviet Union.

Yesterday the man in charge of co-ordinating Russian forces in Chechnya, the Deputy Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov, said the same thing. "We are expecting the worst scenario - a partisan war. People will go into the ravines and from there armed bands will launch raids and attacks."

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