General claims he halted coup against Yeltsin

Turmoil in Russia: President's new security head says he thwarted revolt by supporters of sacked former defence minister
Russia's fastest rising politician, Alexander Lebed, yesterday claimed to have snuffed out a plan for a military coup after the sacking of the Russian Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev.

President Boris Yeltsin had moved swiftly to boost his re-election chances yesterday by firing the unpopular Mr Grachev, and handing two top posts - secretary of the policy-making security council and national security adviser - to the man of the moment, General Lebed.

General Lebed said that he intervened after a group of generals gathered outside Mr Grachev's office, and tried to persuade him to put the army on red alert in an effort to persuade Mr Yeltsin to reverse the dismissal decision.

The speed of the President's manoeuvre, only two days after narrowly winning the election's first round, adds to suspicions that the Kremlin covertly supported General Lebed's presidential campaign, in which he came third with a surprisingly high 11 million votes.

It was in the hope of netting those votes in the run-off that Mr Yeltsin yesterday appointed the 46-year-old retired general, a middle-of-the-road nationalist, as secretary of the Security Council and national security adviser. The scalp of the hapless General Grachev is likely to have been one of General Lebed's demands, as the two men hate each other.

Mr Yeltsin was keen to dispel the impression that the appointments were campaign tactics, insisting that General Lebed would have a key role in military reform and fighting crime. "This is not just an appointment, it is a merger of two politicians, two programs," he said, standing next to General Lebed in the Kremlin.

Within hours of taking up the job, General Lebed was claiming credit for the first success in his drive to impose law and order. "People close to the [former] Defence Minister attempted to form GKChP Number three," he said, referring by a Russian acronym to the groups that organised the August 1991 attempted putsch and the conflict between parliament and the Kremlin in 1993.

"Full loyalty was displayed and I know for sure that there will be no disturbances," the general added. Later, he toned down his claims, saying it had merely been an attempt to put pressure on the President. But he repeated allegations of a thwarted coup on television last night.

General Lebed's appointment is a setback for Mr Yeltsin's challenger, the Communist leader, Gennady Zyuganov. He came second with 31.96 per cent to Mr Yeltsin's 35.02, according to preliminary figures.

Although it is unclear what proportion of the Lebed vote will support the President in the second round, his appointment makes it no easier for the Communists to expand their vote of about 24 million.

General Lebed will have no truck with the Communists: "I faced two ideas: an old one which caused much bloodshed and a new one which is being carried out very poorly, but to which the future belongs. I choose the new idea."

Yesterday's events look as if they were cooked up some time ago by Mr Yeltsin's campaign managers, after concluding that a strong performance by the general would damage the ultra-nationalist, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and the Communists.

In the closing days before Sunday's ballot, glossy pro-Lebed television advertisements, made by specialists with close ties with the Kremlin's campaign, started to appear.

General Lebed has ensured greater powers for his job as secretary of the Security Council, the main-policy making body which overseas the military and the security services. He will be credited for having got rid of the hated General Grachev, who is widely blamed for the debacle of the Chechen war.

He also appears to be playing a leading role in choosing the sacked minister's replacement. Although General Boris Gromov, a strong Yeltsin ally, is tipped for the job, it may remain in the hands of General Mikhail Kolesnikov, 56, chief of the Armed Forces General Staff, who was yesterday named acting Defence Minister.

But his warm relationship with Mr Yeltsin may prove short-lived. He has been given the brief to wipe out corruption. "I don't think he will follow the law," said Mr Markov. "He regards this as a real war against crime. I know there is a big panic right now among the mafia, because they know he wants to use troops against them."

This could lead to a conflict between the general and the shadier characters who surround the President.

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