Russian forces close to mutiny

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President Boris Yeltsin, preparing for a heart bypass operation next month, received what must have been an unwelcome warning yesterday, when his Defence Minister said financial problems were bringing the army to the brink of "uncontrollable developments".

General Alexander Lebed, a nakedly ambitious politician, has already spoken of the danger of a mutiny in the Russian forces but Mr Yeltsin may be more worried by the comments from the minister, General Igor Rodionov, because he has less of an axe to grind.

The Kremlin leader, working short hours in a government sanitorium outside Moscow, used the latest of his keep-in-touch-with-the-people radio broadcasts yesterday to tell politicians to stop fighting for power behind his back. "I want to remind the politicians," he said, "Russia has made its choice for the next four years. There have been enough struggles for influence, fights for jobs, criticism and electioneering." He clearly had in mind General Lebed, whom he sacked from the post of national security adviser last week for failing to be a team player.

But the warning from General Rodionov looked less like another Kremlin power game, more like a statement of fact about the disastrous state of the army, which in the draft 1997 budget has been allocated only one-third of the resources it says it needs. The Russian press has reported several cases of conscript soldiers dying not on the battlefield in Chechnya but of starvation in provincial barracks where food supplies are inadequate.

"Russia's leadership and society should know that the chronic lack of funds is taking the armed forces to the brink of undesirable and even uncontrollable developments," the Defence Minister said in a speech to army veterans. "If the 1997 defence budget is not changed, Russia may lose the armed forces as an integral and active state structure, with all the consequences which would follow that."

The speech coincided with the expiry of a deadline set by a group of officers who threatened to use force if they did not receive their overdue wages but there was no immediate sign of the threat being carried out.

Russia has said its long-term aim is to abolish conscription and create a smaller, professional army but far-reaching reform will take years and in the meantime soldiers must be fed and officers housed and paid.

The military, of course, is not the only section of Russian society becoming dangerously restive. All over this vast country, millions of workers in the state sector, from teachers and doctors to miners and police, are losing patience because they have not received any wages for months.

The government, torn between the Communist-dominated parliament, which wants more state spending, and the International Monetary Fund insisting on a tight budget, has little room for manoeuvre. One way forward - a path which the IMF wants to see taken before it will release more money to Russia - is the improved collection of revenue from rich entrepreneurs who have evaded tax. But it remains to be seen whether a new commission under Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin will succeed in tightening tax discipline.