IN A pre-referendum blow to President Boris Yeltsin, the office of Russia's prosecutor-general said yesterday it had evidence that the Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, had been involved in a swindle involving the property of the former Soviet army in what was East Germany.
Accusations of corruption have been the main weapon of Mr Yeltsin's opponents in an increasingly nasty campaign for Sunday's vote, but it is the first time that such charges have been given official credence.
'The prosecutor-general's office, investigating illegal deals involving the property of the Western Group of Forces, discovered new facts of abuse of official position by the commanders of the group, by the Defence Ministry and by Defence Minister Pavel Grachev personally,' a statement said. The hardliners could have a field day with this between now and Sunday and the scandal could set back Mr Yeltsin's campaign, which was just beginning to take off after a sluggish start.
Yesterday Mr Yeltsin's enemies were very much on the offensive as Russia's fascist leader, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, joined with Communist and nationalist MPs for the first time to launch an alliance with the aim of preventing the President from changing the political status quo after the referendum. For his part, Mr Yeltsin said he would have to take decisive measures after the poll to get Russian reform moving again but he promised he would not resort to a state of emergency to achieve this.
Speaking during a campaign trip to the semi-autonomous republic of Urdmurtia, Mr Yeltsin said: 'We shall have to take a series of tough steps but certainly without soldiers.' His aides have said that if he wins sufficient support in the referendum on who rules Russia, he will try to introduce a new constitution which would tilt the balance of power to the presidency and enable him to by-pass the obstructive deputies in the Soviet-era parliament.
Terrified of this, the hardliners have accused Mr Yeltsin of planning to impose a dictatorship. Yesterday they formed a Public Committee for the Protection of the Constitution which said it was ready to use force if necessary to defend the existing political order.
'There must be doubts this referendum will reflect the will of the people,' said Vladimir Isakov, leader of the Russian Unity faction in parliament. 'If open violence is used against the constitution, we will have to protect it by force as well as constitutional bodies.'
The parliamentary press office issued a statement saying it had information from security sources that Mr Yeltsin was intending to rig the referendum and that sacks of fake ballot papers had been discovered in some provinces. Mr Yeltsin's spokesman dismissed this as 'political provocation' and the Security Ministry also condemned the statement.
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