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)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
Buttoned up: Ryan Reynolds with Helen Mirren in ‘Woman in Gold’
filmFor every box-office smash in his Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. Now he says it's time for a reboot
News
people
News
Actress Julianne Moore wins the Best Actress in a Leading Role Award for 'Still Alice' during the 87th Annual Academy Awards in Hollywood, California
people
Sport
Ross Barkley
footballPaul Scholes says it's time for the Everton playmaker to step up and seize the England No 10 shirt
News
'We will fix it': mice in the 1970s children’s programme Bagpuss
science
Life and Style
2 Karl Lagerfeld and Choupette
fashion
  • Get to the point
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

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Executive

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Retail Buyer / Ecommerce Buyer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working closely with the market...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - CAD Software Solutions Sales

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A reputable company, famed for ...

Ashdown Group: Client Accountant Team Manager - Reading

Negotiable: Ashdown Group: The Ashdown Group has been engaged by a highly resp...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

War with Isis

Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

A spring in your step?

Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
10 best compact cameras

A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

Paul Scholes column

Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?