Yeltsin seeks tacit support from the army: A split among the military would mean civil war, warns defence minister

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IF Boris Yeltsin is to win, he will need more people like the man sitting last night in Row 22 of the Oktyabr cinema, a mile from the east side of the Kremlin. The film had been cancelled to make way for a rally in support of Mr Yeltsin and his decision to rule Russia by decree.

In attendance were the usual rag- tag array of Yeltsin loyalists - leaders of the small, often feuding, democratic parties who helped him win 57 per cent of the vote in June 1991; young men in army surplus fatigues who helped him defeat the hardline putsch in August of the same year; a fat poet inspired by Mr Yeltsin's struggle to write a new collection of verse (sold in the lobby for 35 roubles); well-dressed businessmen who thank Mr Yeltsin for the chance to buy sleek cars, Italian shoes and fine leather jackets.

But such people have always backed Mr Yeltsin. They represent only a small minority of the population. Many more may support him in his war with the Congress of People's Deputies but they do so over their kitchen tables rather than by trudging, on a bleak and rainy evening, through a rush-hour crush on the Novy Arbat to the Oktyabr cinema.

And this is the reason for the importance of the man in Row 22 and others - though how many no one yet knows - like him. He is Colonel Yevgeny Komorov, a senior officer at the Frunze Military Academy, training ground for the Soviet Union's, and now Russia's, military elite.

'Of course, I support the President, otherwise I wouldn't be here,' said the uniformed colonel, waiting for the Deputy Prime Minister, Vladimir Shumeiko, and Mr Yeltsin's chief-of- staff, Sergei Filatov, to appear on stage to rally the faithful. Mr Yeltsin himself had been scheduled to appear but sent word that he would have to cancel because of the death of his mother. (Perhaps he was also put off by a large billboard outside advertising the film Grey Wolves, a documentary about Nikita Khrushchev's final days in power).

Colonel Komorov and everyone else in the Oktyabr cinema last night believes Mr Yeltsin also risks an encounter with the Grey Wolves - who, in Russian fable, devour the Slavic version of Little Red Riding Hood. 'We need a strong president but he has many enemies hiding in the old structures of power,' says Colonel Komorov.

But how many of his fellow officers agree with him? 'Our soldiers, like everyone else, are waiting,' he replies. 'But, in general, I think the army supports what Mr Yeltsin has done.'

The question hanging over Mr Yeltsin's future, though, is whether, if necessary, this 'general' support can be translated into something more specific. No one thinks Mr Yeltsin wants to bring tanks on to the streets. In a television address to the nation on Saturday, he announced he had ordered his Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, to keep the army out of politics. What he meant was keep the army from joining his foes.

So far it has obeyed. The Russian military, though deeply split, is still ingrained with the habits of the Red Army, which pledged and delivered unwavering loyalty to the Communist Party and, apart from a brief spasm during the 1991 coup, stayed out of politics. With the party gone, though, the anchor that kept it away from political fighting has been removed. Soldiers want to obey orders but are divided over who should give them.

Mr Grachev has insisted repeatedly, ever since the Congress of People's Deputies began its assault on Mr Yeltsin's authority last December, that the army will not get involved. He reiterated this on Sunday from the podium of the White House, seat of the Supreme Soviet and bastion of Mr Yeltsin's foes. But he acknowledged that the power struggle between Mr Yeltsin and parliament could create havoc: 'The army has maintained stability so far but the situation is heated. A split in the army would end in bloodshed,' he said.

An open rift would be disaster. It would strip Mr Yeltsin of his 'final option'. Without the explicit and absolute support of the military - totalling more than 2.5 million men - and a formidable, if deeply demoralised, security apparatus left from the Soviet Union, there will be little he can do if the Congress leader Ruslan Khasbulatov calls his bluff, ignores his decrees, tries to sabotage a referendum on 25 April and moves to impeach him.

What would Mr Yeltsin do if Congress sent police to remove him from the Kremlin? He must be certain that they will not. For this, though, he will need far more than the cautious endorsement so far given by the military and security forces.

At an emergency Supreme Soviet session on Sunday, which took the first step towards impeachment, deputies heard a government statement designed to calm talk of mutiny. The statement, though, stopped far short of explicit support for Mr Yeltsin's decision to impose what amounts to presidential rule and by-pass the legislature, elected under Communism in 1990 but still the closest thing Russia has to a democratic parliament.

Yesterday, Interfax news agency quoted a spokesman for the Urals Military District as saying troops were abiding by Mr Grachev's orders but added that 'there is a divergence of views in that regard on the part of the officers' corps'.

For the time being, the possibility of a military coup or a section of the army hiving off to join Mr Khasbultov seems slight. But Mr Yeltsin still needs more officers like Colonel Komorov in the Octyabr cinema if he is to survive.

Most soldiers, though, probably share the mood, reported yesterday by Interfax, in the Leningrad Military Region. Asked about the political struggle in Moscow, a spokesman replied: 'Even top-ranking officers do not know anything about them.'

(Photograph omitted)

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