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Pressure Grows for Ousting Grachev

By Simon Saradzhyan and Jan de Weydenthal

Moscow, April 26 (RFE/RL) - More and more calls are heard these days in Moscow for ousting Defense Minister Pavel Grachev.

Deputy Chairman of the State Duma's Defense Committee, General Mikhail Surkov, Ret., told RFE/RL this week that "there can be no doubt that Grachev should be replaced." Surkov went on to say that "it is under his (Grachev's) command that the armed forces have become ridden with corruption, have become involved in shady deals and, eventually, lost most of their combat readiness."

Surkov said that "a new commander is needed not to reform but to restore the armed forces since there is nothing left by now to reform."

Pavel Felgengauer, military editor of the daily newspaper "Sevodnya" agreed. "The question is not whether he (Grachev" will be sacked, but when he will be sacked," Felgengauer told RFE/RL. He speculated that the Grachev might be dismissed either "before or after the Victory Day (May 8)."

And the public does not seem to trust the minister as well. According to a recent public opinion poll conducted by the All-Russian Center for Public Opinion Studies (VtSIOM), 55 percent of respondents in a national sample thought Grachev's performance unsatisfactory. Only six percent gave him good marks.

Commenting on the findings, VtSIOM's analyst Natalya Zorkaya said that "although Russian leaders tend not to pay attention to public opinion polls, Grachev should start thinking about another job."

Surkov listed several potential candidates for defense minister, in case Grachev is ousted. Surkov said that Grachev could be replaced by Chief of the General Staff Academy Igor Rodionov, Federal Border Guard Service commander Andrei Nikolayev, and even former generals Boris Gromov and Alexandr Lebed. The last two are currently deputies in the State Duma.

But Surkov said that the decision will have to be made by President Boris Yeltsin himself. And Yeltsin may prefer to keep Grachev.

Grachev is currently in China, accompanying Yeltsin during president's visit and talks with the Chinese leaders. Grachev was reported to have said that his relations with Yeltsin are "normal."

Grachev has been fiercely loyal to Yeltsin. But he has been constantly criticized by numerous politicians and the media over the conduct of the war in Chechnya. In the mind of many Russians, the minister has become closely identified with the conflict.

The war has emerged as a major issue in the electoral campaign for president. Yeltsin has acknowledged that this issue may seriously affect his prospects for re-election. This, more than anything else, could determine Grachev's fate.