Grachev accused of corruption

Dark clouds were gathering over the head of Russia's defence minister Pavel Grachev yesterday as a leading newspaper suggested he had gone into hospital to escape a renewed corruption scandal.

The liberal daily Sevodnya (Today) accused General Grachev of retiring to bed with "trench disease" or cowardice, not over the army's failure in Chechnya, but over the discovery of an undeclared bank account in Germany full of money which belonged in Russian state coffers.

The article was written by Sergei Parkhomenko, a usually reliable journalist who made his name during the hardline uprising of October 1993 by revealing that the Kremlin had been in disarray for hours until General Grachev stopped dithering and decided to back President Yeltsin in his assault on the White House. Gratitude for that loyalty apparently made Mr Yeltsin overlook accusations of corruption levelled at the defence minister last autumn, when his symptoms of stress first appeared.

The general was admitted to hospital this week for a check-up. The daily Izvestia speculated on Thursday that President Boris Yeltsin, unhappy in the way in which the army has become bogged down in Chechnya, might use his minister's illness as a pretext for sacking him and revising his policy towards the separatist Caucasian region.

But Sevodnya reported that, based on information from "various unrelated sources, President Yeltsin had, at a meeting of the Security Council on 25 January, confronted General Grachev with an embarrassing document showing that, when the former Soviet army was withdrawing from eastern Europe, defence ministry officials had opened a bank account in Berlin in 1992 to siphon off the proceeds from the sale of military equipment. For example, money from the sale of army fuel in Bulgaria went into the account.

"The diagnosis of General Grachev's illness is ``trench disease'', a term used for plain cowardice since the First World War" Sevodnya said. "But it is not the mess in Grozny which makes him panic, rather events of another kind, political and criminal."

Those accusations were serious - that General Grachev had presided over widespread corruption among army officers leaving Germany in the summer of 1994 and, specifically, that he had accepted a Mercedes car bought from a fund which should have gone to house returning Russian soldiers.

An investigative reporter, Dmitry Kholodov of the daily Moskovsky Komsomolets, was killed by a briefcase bomb after digging too deeply into this affair. General Grachov's deputy Matvei Burlakov fell in the public furore which surrounded Kholodov's death but the defence minister hung on by the skin of his teeth.

Then the war in Chechnya began, diverting attention from the army's shame.

General Grachev boasted that his men could subdue the Chechen rebels in a matter of hours. But since Russian troops have failed to take Grozny, his position looks weaker than ever.