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Russia Postpones Military Reforms

Prague, May 2 (RFE/RL) - Russia's Defense Minister Pavel Grachev says that it is still too early to reform Russia's armed forces.

Grachev's remarks were made public yesterday by the Russian news agency Interfax. He was reported to have said that persistent shortages of resources, and continuing legislative procrastination make military changes currently "impossible."

But the essence of Grachev's message is basically political, reflecting prevailing uncertainty among the military leaders about Russia's future direction.

The issue of military reforms has long been a subject of apparent confusion in Moscow. There have been persistent rumors that the high military brass has been reluctant to introduce changes in fear of losing power and institutional privileges. But it is also difficult to find any tangible signs of the political leadership's insistence that reforms should be effectively introduced.

Three months ago (mid-February), President Boris Yeltsin was reported to have complained about the slow pace of changes in the military. He directly criticized Grachev in a public speech by saying that "reform is proceeding badly, but Grachev seems to think it is going well."

Yeltsin reiterated his criticism some two weeks later (end of February) when he charged at a government meeting that no attempt at military reform had been made during 1995. He then vowed to press for the creation of a professional army.

But nothing has happened since.

Finally, last month Grachev intimated that the military had prepared a 15-point draft of proposed changes in the armed forces. These were to include a streamlining of relations between the Defense Ministry and the General Staff of the Armed Forces, and setting up of new territorial commands for the entire force.

But these hints of potential reforms were vague. Grachev has never explained what would be involved in the "streamlining," although it seems that it certainly stopped short of transferring the ministry to civilian control.

With regard to the plans for new territorial commands, Grachev said that they would involve the establishment of six military districts: Far Eastern, Siberian-Trans-Baykal, Ural-Volga, Southern, Central and Northern. A military head of each district would command all types of forces - ground troops, air defense, aviation and navy - stationed in his district.

But Grachev was also quick to emphasize in the past that reforms in the armed forces will have to be decided by political leaders rather than military ones. Now, in the situation in which attention of all political leaders is focused on forthcoming presidential elections, Grachev knows that such decisions are unlikely to be taken any time soon.

To make matters more complicated still, at least two competing candidates for presidency - Aleksandr Lebed and Gennady Zyuganov - have already hinted that they had their own, and largely contradictory, ideas on what should be done with Russian armed forces in the future.

Lebed said last month that he would like to see armed forces reduced in numbers and functionally streamlined. Lebed said that if elected president he would establish a standing operational force of only 15 army divisions and five or six standing brigades of airborne troops, while an additional 15 or so divisions would serve as basically a supportive force.

Zyuganov, top communist leader and current favorite in the race, is said planning to impose personal direct control over the armed forces and is opposed to any cuts in military personnel.

Grachev's announcement make clear that the issue of military changes has been shelved. It is likely to be taken up only when Russia chooses its Commander-in-Chief next month.