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Russia: Kremlin Shakeup Looms Over Military

By Simon Saradzhyan and Don Hill

Moscow, 4 March 1997 (RFE/RL) - A chorus of Russian media is predicting yet another wave of reshuffling at the top of Russia's military, and our military correspondent in Moscow quotes an unnamed Kremlin source as saying President Boris Yeltsin may anounce key changes today.

A number of public signs support the shake-up talk.

Yeltsin last week summoned the commander of the Far Eastern Military District (DVO), Viktor Chechevatov, for discussions. Chechevatov told Interfax after the meeting that Yeltsin did not offer him a promotion. But, the commander added, he stands ready to take up any post the commander-in-chief assigns him. The general is thought to be a favorite of Yeltsin since he presented a clear and detailed report when the President stopped off in Khabarovsk on his way to China last year. He also gave Yeltsin key backing during the heated 1996 presidential campaign.

Chechevatov's conference with Yeltsin came against a backdrop of persistent reports that Defense Minister Igor Rodionov is about to be cut, and that the DVO chief is his most likely successor.

Yeltsin named Rodionov Defense Minister last summer to initiate reforms. Alexander Lebed, then secretary of the National Security Council, since ousted, was his chief sponsor. Since then, Rodionov has complained openly about the decline of the military, but he has yet to order any major change. Yeltsin scolded Rodionov last week and publically told the Defense Minister to stop whining and start the reforms. Yeltsin also issued a statement via his press secretary that the condition of the armed forces is the Defense Minister's responsibility.

The President stopped short of hinting that he is about to fire the minister. Two weeks ago, flanked by a smiling Rodionov, he announced that rumors of the Minister's imminent dismissal were groundless. They have remained strong nonetheless.

Unlike Rodionov, DVO Commander Chechevatov reported to Yeltsin that the armed forces remain under full control. Even he warned, however, that conditions must be allowed to sink no lower. He said the troops are capable of functioning, but are in a situation as serious as in Stalingrad, in a reference to a battle the Red Army fought against the Germans from July 1942 to February 1943.

Other candidates for defense minister reportedly being considered by the Kremlin are the former deputy defense minister, now legislator, Colonel General Boris Gromov; two civilians, Rodionov foe Yuri Baturin, current Defense Council Secretary, and First Deputy Defense Minister Andrei Kokoshin; and the Director of the Federal Border Guard Service, Army General Andrei Nikolayev.

Since taking office, Rodionov has replaced most of his predecessor's officals with his own proteges, led by Army General Viktor Samsonov. Samsonov is chief of the general staff. Russian newspapers insisted last week that Samsonov is even more likely to lose his post than is Rodionov.

In a speech last week, President Yeltsin was critical of failures by the government of Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin to pay pensions and military salaries on time. This weekend, the president issued a decree ordering timely payment of salaries. Although he held back from any direct attack on Chernomyrdin, speculation has grown that the presidential sickle may chop that high.

Also this weekend, the communist chairman of the State Duma, lower house of parliament, predicted the rising tensions would force a vigorous shakeup in the government. Chairman Gennady Seleznyov told reporters he thinks Yegor Stroyev, head of the Federation Council upper house of parliament, might replace Viktor Chernomyrdin as prime minister. Many analysts discounted suggestions of the demise of Chernomyrdin, who is widely regarded as a symbol of stability in the Kremlin.