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Russia: Experts Praise Switch To Civilian Defense Minister

Moscow, 12 December 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Boris Yeltsin's decision yesterday to retire Army General Igor Rodionov from active military service, and retain him as the first post-communist civilian defense minister, attracted broadly favorable comment from analysts inside Russia and elsewhere.

Viktor Kremenyuk, deputy director of the U.S. and Canada Institute in Moscow, said that Russia had "ripened" by joining the league of countries with civilian defense ministers.

Kremenyuk and other military analysts reached by our correspondent praised the decision. General Yuri Lebedev, chief military expert with the policy institute RAU, warned that Rodionov still will be viewed as a military man by his subordinates, but said that others now will treat him as a civil politician. Kremenyuk said that the miltary might have tried to sabotage reform efforts of what he called a "purely civilian" defense minister.

The "London Daily Telegraph's" veteran Russia correspondent Alan Philps wrote from Moscow that the action was viewed there "as heralding the way for the Russian military to get used to taking orders from a man not wearing epaulettes."

In announcing the decision yesterday, President Yeltsin issued a statement including these words: "The experience of democratic states testifies that a civilian at the helm of the Defense Ministry can successfully tackle the whole range of problems of strengthening the state's defense potential and ensuring the vital activities of the army and navy."

The U.S. newspaper "Boston Globe" today quotes Yeltsin's military adviser, Yury Baturin, as saying the move is part of a realignment of duties in the Russian military that will allow the defense minister to concentrate on slashing the army's bloated bureaucracy and to move ahead with plans to switch to a fully professional military. The Globe reported that Baturin told a briefing yesterday that the civilian defense minister henceforth will be responsible for broad policy decisions, and that a military general staff will exercise operational control of all the armed forces.

The newspaper quoted Lev Rokhlin, chairman of the parliament's defense committee, as saying: "This is a welcome move in that civilian control over the army is a requirement for a European democracy."

Not all reaction was enthusiastic. The "London Daily Telegraph" today quoted Pavel Folgenhauer, national security editor for the Russian newspaper, "Sevodnya" (Today), as saying that the decision was mere window dressing. As Folgenhauer put it "If Rodionov takes off his green uniform," he does not then become a civilian expert.

Rodionov himself went public last October with an appeal for financial support for the Russian armed forces.

"Russia's leadership and society should know that the chronic lack of funds is taking the armed forces to the brink of undesirable, and even uncontrollable, developments," he said.

Widely respected within the military, Rodionov has said in the past that the Defense Ministry should be headed by a civilian, not a career soldier like himself.