Yeltsin's enemies organise a private undercover army

Tony Barber in Moscow on a secret threat to the new order
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AT FIRST, for police sergeants Vladimir Kotelnikov and Igor Naperstkov, it seemed a trifling incident. On the evening of 9 October, they were driving along Nagatinskaya Street in Moscow in their patrol car when a taxi driver pulled up and shouted that his passenger was refusing to pay for his trip and was threatening to kill him with a 9mm Makarov pistol.

The sergeants got out and arrested the passenger, who, in a blind fury, rained curses on them and screamed that he would have them exiled to Siberia. Nothing special in that: in fact, pretty par for the course in Moscow.

At the police station, however, the plot thickened. The arrested man, who said he was the director of a furniture business, gave his name as Khudin Arsanakhayev and identified himself as a Chechen - a people from the northern Caucasus, many of whom operate in Moscow's criminal underworld. Moreover, he asserted that he was the nephew of Ruslan Khasbulatov, also a Chechen but, more importantly, the Speaker of the Russian parliament, a rival to President Boris Yeltsin, and one of the country's most powerful politicians.

Searching through Mr Arsanakhayev's pockets, the policemen discovered that he had a gun licence issued by a certain General Ivan Boyko. A quick check showed that the general was the official in charge of a security service that protects Russian political leaders. Clearly, Mr Arsanakhayev was no ordinary furniture salesman - a point underlined when a captain from the security service arrived at the police station and immediately secured his release.

The newspaper Izvestia, which investigated the case, smelled a rat when it took a look at the police station's arrest book to find out more. A bland entry in the book said: 'Materials given to the Department for the Protection of the Highest Organs of State Power in the Russian Federation.'

What exactly is this department? If it were nothing but a bodyguard service for politicians of the kind found in most countries, there would be no problem. In fact, it seems there is more to it than meets the eye.

According to Izvestia, 'the department in question is one of the most mysterious and least publicised structures in contemporary Russia'. The majority of its members come from the Interior Ministry, which runs Russia's police force. However, the department is accountable neither to the Interior Ministry nor even to Mr Yeltsin, despite his position as head of state.

It turns out that the department takes its orders exclusively from Mr Khasbulatov, the Speaker of parliament. In other words, men such as the 'furniture businessman' arrested on Nagatinskaya Street belong to an armed formation that is under the personal control of an ambitious politician who appears dedicated to undermining Mr Yeltsin and reversing many of his key policies.

Mr Khasbulatov is a professor of economics who first rose to political prominence in 1990 when, at Mr Yeltsin's instigation, he became the deputy chairman of the Russian parliament. Though once a Communist Party member, he was generally seen as a liberal by instinct. He had every reason to hate authoritarian rule: in 1944, when Stalin deported the entire Chechen nation from its Caucasian homeland for alleged collaboration with the Nazis, Mr Khasbulatov's family was banished to northern Kazakhstan.

Over the last year, however, the Russian parliament has turned into a bastion of opposition to Mr Yeltsin, and Mr Khasbulatov has made clear his contempt for the reformist government of Yegor Gaidar, the Prime Minister trying to construct a free-market economy. Mr Khasbulatov once said of the economic reformers: 'Of course, I treat them as normal people, but in the depths of my soul I really despise them. My attitude to them is the same as to some worms.'

A further indication of his views appears in a book he recently published whose title is Power. In it, he writes: 'What poses a danger is that virtually all the institutions of authority in the growing Russian state are extremely weak and disorganised . . . Regrettably, new democratic institutions of authority have to a considerable degree been infused with the former totalitarianism.'

There is no way of establishing the precise size of his armed unit. Izvestia estimated that it had 1,500 to 5,000 members. The paper also pointed out that 'it is still unclear what law forms the basis of this armed formation, how it is financed and what functions it performs'. Clearly, however, the department can issue a gun to Mr Khasbulatov's nephew.

In fairness, it needs to be said that the staff of Izvestia and Mr Khasbulatov have never been the best of friends. The paper has fought off several attempts by him to turn it into an official organ of parliament, under his personal supervision. It does not hide its view that Mr Khasbulatov is more dictator than democrat. For his part, the parliament Speaker derides the idea that Izvestia and other news media should act as an independent force in public life. 'I don't give a damn about this 'Fourth Estate',' he once said.

Given Izvestia's grounds for disliking Mr Khasbulatov, one should be cautious before concluding that he is building up a military force with the intention of toppling Mr Yeltsin. What he is doing is seeking quietly to amass more power for himself, by what appear to be less than constitutional means. In this way, the emergence of the 'Department for the Protection of the Highest Organs of State Power' reflects a tendency on the part of many of Russia's post-Communist politicians to pay mere lip service to legal, democratic procedures.

The first chapter of Mr Khasbulatov's book is entitled: 'Power is Morally Stable when it Creates the Conditions for its Overthrow.' In the light of the incident on Nagatinskaya Street, Mr Yeltsin may like to order a copy.

(Photograph omitted)