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)

News
Russell Brand was in typically combative form during his promotional interview with Newsnight's Evan Davis
peopleReports that Brand could stand for Mayor on an 'anti-politics' ticket
News
The clocks go forward an hour at 1am on Sunday 30 March
news
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning? Apparently not.
News
Voluminous silk drawers were worn by Queen Victoria
newsThe silk underwear is part of a growing trade in celebrity smalls
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
footballMatch report: Real fight back to ruin Argentinian's debut
News
Candidates with surnames that start with an A have an electoral advantage
newsVoters are biased towards names with letters near start of alphabet
Arts and Entertainment
Isis with Lord Grantham (Hugh Bonneville)
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Jay James
TVReview: Performances were stale and cheesier than a chunk of Blue Stilton left out for a month
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?