Yeltsin purges three hawks from his eyrie

ANDREW HIGGINS

MOSCOW

In a sacrificial purge of the Kremlin's inner circle, President Boris Yeltsin yesterday accepted the resignations of three hawkish loyalists, ditching his Interior Minister, the head of the internal security apparatus and a bellicose vice-premier responsibile for minority affairs.

The three, all gung-ho supporters of the war in Chechnya and among Mr Yeltsin's most ardent supporters, lost their jobs on the eve of a vote of confidence in the government by the State Duma, Russia's rowdy lower house of parliament.

They had offered to resign on Thursday at a tense meeting of the Security Council, the Kremlin's secretive decision-making body. Mr Yeltsin called the session to apportion responsibility for the Chechen hostage-taking debacle in southern Russia earlier this month.

The Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, volunteered to step down at the same meeting but seems to have retained his job.

A presidential decree issued by the Kremlin yesterday named no successors for the departing officials, leaving two of Russia's three "power ministries" effectively leaderless.

The most significant departure is that of the Interior Minister, Viktor Yerin, at his post since early 1992. Though widely ridiculed as incompetent, Mr Yerin was made a "Hero of the Russian Federation" in 1993, a reward for his loyalty to Mr Yeltsin during a bloody showdown with parliament.

Removed as head of the Federal Security Bureau, the domestic arm of the old KGB, is Sergei Stepashin. Author of a doctoral dissertation on Communist Party leadership in the fire service, he took command of Russia's secret policemen in 1994. His predecessor was sacked for showing insufficient resolve in pursuing Mr Yeltsin's political foes.

Also relieved of his job was the Nationalities Minister, Nikolai Yegorov, best known for his verbal recklessness, including predictions that Grozny, the Chechen capital, would fall without a shot being fired. A fourth sacrifice was Yevgenny Kuznetsov, governor of the Stavropol region, where Chechen commandos led by Shamil Basayev recently held more than 1,000 people hostage in a hospital.

The changes suggest an important shift in the balance of influence inside the Kremlin, away from advocates of brute force who had been in the ascendant since Mr Yeltsin ordered troops into Chechnya last December. The war, now in its seventh month, has killed tens of thousands of people, destroyed entire towns and sent Mr Yeltsin's popularity ratings plunging to single digits.

Mr Yeltsin's spokesman, Sergei Medvedev, suggested the purge could extend further.

The dominant figure in the Russian leadership is increasingly the Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin. A former energy industry apparatchik with scant charisma but a flare for compromise, he has burnished his public image - and enraged the power ministers - by presenting himself as Russia's pre-eminent peace-maker.

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