Yeltsin casts out his Rasputin

Purge in the Kremlin
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The Independent Online
Boris Yeltsin was yesterday compelled by circumstances to make a choice that has been hanging over him for months. He finally opted to support the democrats in his entourage after a power struggle that briefly threatened to disrupt Russia's presidential elections. He finally sacrificed three of his cronies whose presence in the heart of the Kremlin had raised serious doubts about his commitment to democracy.

The events in Moscow over the last turbulent 24 hours were almost certainly not a coup d'etat, although the Russian Prosecutor-General's office has launched an inquiry into allegations by leading liberals that a putsch was planned as an attempt to stop the election run-off from going ahead.

What seems to have occurred was a showdown between the democrats who have played a leading role in devising Mr Yeltsin's grandiose election campaign, but feared that they would be dumped once he has won a second term, and a group of the President's closest associates, hawkish security men who also felt their grip on power weakening.

The democrats won. Out went General Alexander Korzhakov, a Rasputin figure in the Kremlin - head of the 20,000-strong presidential guard and one of Mr Yeltsin's closest friends, who last month called for the elections to be postponed.

Out went General Mikhail Barsukov, head of the Federal Security Service, who led the criminal bombing of Pervomayskoye in Dagestan last January. And out went Oleg Soskovets, a first deputy prime minister, regarded by both men as a friend and mentor.

The event that precipitated their sackings, less than a fortnight before the election run-off, seem trivial in comparison with the outcome, which served the world with another frightening reminder of the fragility of democracy in Russia.

On Wednesday afternoon, two senior staff on the President's campaign team - Sergei Lisovsky, a show-business magnate, and Arkady Yevstafyev, a businessman - were arrested as they left the White House, the government's headquarters.

They were held by members of Mr Korzhakov's presidential guard and armed police. According to General Barsukov, they were carrying a large sum - allegedly $500,000 - in hard currency; the authorities were merely being inquisitive, he said, and later released them without charge.

A shaken Mr Yevstafyev, who was interrogated for 11 hours, supplied a different account: "They did not explain the reasons, but asked me about the election. I heard one of them say the President would win the election in any case, but it would be thanks to "the patriots", rather than to people who attached themselves to him."

News of their arrest was broadcast on a late night unscheduled bulletin by NTV - once an independent national television channel, now a mouthpiece in the democratic camp's battle against a return of the Communists, whose leader Gennady Zyuganov came a close second in last Sunday's first round.

The liberal Anatoly Chubais, Mr Yeltsin's erstwhile privatisation minister and head of his election campaign, announced that a planned coup had been brewing; the arrests would, he said, have been followed by other moves against the President's election staff. It was the end of a "long struggle between a group in the Yeltsin administration who were working for victory by democratic elections, and another which proposes the use of force as a solution".

Crucially, he had the support of General Alexander Lebed, Mr Yeltsin's latest recruit. He would "cruelly crush" any uprising, the general warned.

The arrival in the Kremlin of this gravel-voiced retired soldier, like some sort of avenging Robocop, is critical to yesterday's events. His ascension to power was orchestrated by the President's advisers, who covertly supported his election campaign in which he attracted 11 million votes. Mr Yeltsin then sought to win over his votes for the run-off by making him secretary of the Security Council and national security adviser.

But his sudden rise, coupled with his vow to wipe out corruption, has disturbed the delicate, fetid, biological balance within the Kremlin.

On Tuesday, he got rid of the Defence Minister, General Pavel Grachev, and then claimed to have pre-empted a coup plot, hatched by a handful of generals. And yesterday he helped to secure the departure of three other potential threats to his supremacy. In three days, he has become the second most powerful man in the country.

The key question now is whether the episode harms Mr Yeltsin, as he prepares for the 3 July run-off, or helps him. His campaign message is that he represents stability and normality. Such upheavals create the opposite impression.

Mr Zyuganov, who has recently been portraying himself as a moderate in favour of an all-encompassing coalition government, was quick to pounce on this theme. "The Popular Patriotic Front declares the Fatherland is in danger," he said in a statement. "Internal squabbling around the weakening and loosening strings of government can lead to fierce civil strife and tragic consequences."

But he also accused the President of conducting a "well-planned game" in which he was "feverishly changing his team to try to stay in power", and "throwing overboard people who seemed closest and most devoted to him".

Although yesterday's turmoil seems too precarious to have been part of a pre-planned strategy, it is true that the sight of notorious hawks being flushed out of their heavily feathered nest will delight many Russians; it will probably help the President win over the vote for General Lebed who, although a nationalist, has so far proved to be champion of the liberals' cause.

It will also enhance the image that Mr Yeltsin has gone to great lengths to cultivate, that of the father of the nation who is willing to punish even his favourite children, if they start getting out of control.

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