The loyalty of the military is crucial if President Yeltsin is to continue his reform programme and survive a bruising political battle over power-sharing with Russia's conservative parliament.
With politicians of all shades deeply unpopular, the Russian military is the only institution aside from the church that enjoys wide popular support. According to a recent opinion poll, it commands far more respect than Mr Yeltsin or parliament. Fifty-nine per cent of those questioned said they had confidence in the military, compared with a confidence rating of only 36 per cent for the presidency and 18 per cent for the Congress of People's Deputies.
In an interview yesterday on the eve of Armed Forces Day, President Yeltsin warned against efforts to end the military's political neutrality. He condemned as 'foul and irresponsible' those who 'shamelessly assume for themselves the title of Great Patriot'. He said Russia was still struggling to develop its own military doctrine following the collapse of the Soviet Union and called for vigilance against meddling by extremists: 'I need hardly say that people are trying to fill this vacuum . . . There are those who want to play the army card.'
The remarks, to be published today in the army newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star), reflect President Yeltsin's concern at the threat posed by hardline nationalists, who have stepped up efforts to enlist support within Russia's demoralised armed forces. In recent days, a group called 'Workers' Russia' has plastered walls across Moscow with leaflets condemning the government as 'traitorous dogs' and called on soldiers to rebel. 'We are the only people who can save the country and get rid of the traitor. The stones of Red Square remember and are waiting for the glorious army of peasants and workers.' The group, with other organisations from the far left and fascist right, has organised a protest today to coincide with official ceremonies in Red Square to honour Russia's war dead.
At a meeting in Moscow of 300 officers at the weekend, one military pressure group, the 'Union of Officers', called for the dismissal of the Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev. It said he had failed to protect soldiers' interests, crack down on corruption or halt the decay of Russia's defences. There is widespread discontent within Russia's military, which has been ordered to trim down to 1.5 million troops over two years. The Soviet army had nearly 4 million. Mr Grachev has described Russia's share of the Soviet military as only 'ruins and shards'.
Russian generals, however, have strongly denied any inclination to get involved in politics. When Andrei Kozyrev, the Foreign Minister, warned of a possible coup attempt last summer, six ranking officials in both the defence and security ministries promptly protested their loyalty.
None the less, there have been warnings about the state of Russia's combat readiness. Gennady Bochayev, chief of the main mobilisation directorate, complained last week that draft-dodging was so widespread that only 20 per cent of conscripts now turn up for duty. Another problem is the lack of co-operation between the former Soviet republics. This has crippled weapons production.
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