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Rise of the hardliners forces Yeltsin to attempt a dangerous balancing act

A SUBTLE shift of power is taking place in Russia. The losers are the Prime Minister, Yegor Gaidar, and his reformist colleagues in the Russian government. The winners are a coalition of conservative generals, industrialists, Russian nationalists and shadowy figures from the security services.

Between them stands President Boris Yeltsin, whose instincts draw him to the liberal camp, but who has been forced during the past four months to make several significant concessions to the conservatives. Already Russian commentators are comparing Mr Yeltsin's position to that which faced Mikhail Gorbachev in the final months before his downfall. Like Mr Yeltsin, the then Soviet president tried to carry on a balancing act between left and right, but failed to prevent a steady increase in the powers of his conservative enemies. Ultimately, the men he had promoted turned against him and launched the putsch of August last year.

Mr Yeltsin is not yet in such peril. It is politically difficult for his opponents to plot his removal as long as he is the only freely elected leader in Russian history, and as long as he continues to command popularity among the Russian public. Still, certain warning signals are in place.

The most important change occurred on 7 July, when Mr Yeltsin issued a decree enormously expanding the powers of the Security Council, an executive body with five voting members, which functions separately from the government. All ministries and local government organs were ordered to submit to council decrees, and its secretary, Yury Skokov, was given authority to compel obedience.

At a stroke, the Security Council appeared to replace other organs of the presidency, as well as Mr Gaidar's government and the parliament, as Russia's most important political authority. The Moscow weekly Kommersant described the council as similar to the Politburo, the highest organ of power in the Soviet Union, which was also unelected and extremely secretive. Sergei Shakhrai, a liberal and former legal adviser to Mr Yeltsin, warned the Security Council could seize power and impose emergency rule.

The council's political complexion offers some clues about what it is up to. Two voting members are liberals - Mr Yeltsin and Mr Gaidar. But the other three have close ties to the armed forces and intelligence services. One is the Vice-President, Alexander Rutskoi, an Afghan war veteran who is an outspoken critic of Mr Yeltsin's reforms and believes in using force, if necessary, to protect ethnic Russians in former Soviet republics.

The second is Sergei Filatov, first deputy to the head of the Russian parliament, Ruslan Khasbulatov. Mr Khasbulatov has used the parliament to block liberal reforms and, like Mr Rutskoi, has good connections with hawks in the armed forces. His views are reflected on the Security Council through Mr Filatov.

The third, and apparently the most powerful, is Mr Skokov, who oversees military personnel policy. He is creating branches of the Security Council all over Russia that are answerable to him. They control the organs of authority that matter most at local level - military units and offices of the security and interior ministries. The decree of 7 July indicates, therefore, that Mr Skokov may soon be free to overrule or ignore Gaidar government policies.

What that could mean in practice has already become clear. The Security Council recently proposed a special ministry for Russia's relations with former Soviet republics now in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). While that looks innocent enough on paper, it gives the impression that Russia's leaders do not consider these republics to be genuinely sovereign states. It also suggests Russia intends to pursue a more 'forward' policy in defending Russian minorities in the new states. This applies above all to Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Moldova, Latvia and Estonia.

The Russian Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev, warned in June that if Russia surrendered to the temptation to use force or pressure against other CIS states, then the military and security organs would get out of control. 'Sooner or later they will slough off the democratic skin that is an unnecessary nuisance to them,' he said.

It is no surprise, then, that Mr Rutskoi and other nationalists are baying for Mr Kozyrev's blood. Mr Yeltsin has proved reluctant to sacrifice his minister, fearing the West would see this as heralding a more hardline Russian foreign policy, and also that it would weaken the liberal camp in domestic politics. But the signs suggest the conservatives - the 'national patriots' - already wield considerable influence over Russian foreign policy.

This is reflected in the rise to power of militantly nationalist generals at the expense of moderates in the new Russian defence ministry. In May, the civilian liberal Andrei Kokoshin was demoted from the post of first deputy defence minister. But Pavel Grachev, a general who had held the same rank, was promoted to Defence Minister. He opposed the August coup, but he is no liberal and has sometimes directly contradicted Mr Yeltsin on policy.

After his appointment, he warned that he would not allow 'the honour and dignity of Russians to be insulted on the territory of any state'. Although Moldova is an independent state, he has taken no steps to reverse the involvement of the 14th Army in fighting in support of the Russian minority there.

General Grachev and other Afghan veterans dominate the defence ministry, holding five of the top seven posts. One is Boris Gromov, who has survived and prospered despite his ties with the August coup plotters. Another is Valery Mironov, who commanded Russian forces in the Baltic states and made no bones about supporting strident Russian officers' associations there.

Allied to the generals are the bosses of heavy industry and defence plants, who oppose rapid conversion to civilian production and want protection for inefficient factories in the form of extra subsidies. These managers, known as 'red directors', have slowed the pace of Mr Gaidar's economic reforms and have won support from many workers fearful of job losses and bankruptcies.

In May, this coalition pushed aside several prominent liberals in the government and inserted three of their own men. In June, they created a broad anti-government alliance, the Civic Union, which includes Mr Rutskoi's People's Party of Free Russia, the country's largest party. The Civic Union is strong enough to seek Mr Gaidar's removal when parliament reconvenes next month. But it may choose instead to let him stay, while forcing him to water down his policies still further.

Either way, the cause of Russian reform looks in worse trouble than at any time since the August coup. The democrats are disunited, the parliament is virtually an anti-Yeltsin camp, and members of the old Communist nomenklatura - now dressed in the clothes of Russian patriotism - have reasserted their grip on the levers of power. Mr Yeltsin has been in tight spots before, but he will need all his considerable skills to free himself from this one.

(Photograph omitted)