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Russia: Rodionov Falls As Yeltsin Thrashes Military Leadership

Moscow, 23 May 1997 (RFE/RL) - The secretary of Russia's Defense Council, Yury Baturin, says President Boris Yeltsin might appoint General Igor Sergeyev as new Russia's Defense Minister.

Yesterday, Yeltsin fired both Defense Minister Igor Rodionov and the Head of General Staff, Viktor Samsonov, and appointed Sergeyev as interim Defense Minister. Yeltsin today meets Sergeyev at the Kremlin.

Yeltsin fired Rodionov and Samsonov, blaming them for the failure to reform the country's stalled war machine. Yeltsin named Sergeyev, the Commander of Russia's strategic nuclear missile forces (RVSN). Yeltsin also named the Commander of the Far Eastern Military District (DVO), Viktor Chechevatov, as interim Chief of General Staff.

Yeltsin chose to announce the shake-up at the sitting of his Defence Council, which the Commander-in-Chief chaired himself, rattling with words of anger and dissatisfaction in front of solemn-looking Generals and Admirals.

"I am not just unsatisfied, I am outraged by the course of reform in the army and the state of the military altogether," Yeltsin said as he eyed the decorated Commanders.

Most of them bowed their heads, taking notes as Yeltsin accused the of "remaining extremely uninterested in reforms, and fattening themselves" at the expense of soldiers. "You have built dachas.. that's the direction" reforms are going, Yeltsin thundered.

The President roared back into the very heat of Russia's military affairs last week by ordering Rodionov to stop personnel reductions in the elite airborne troops, and firing Rodionov's deputy and the Defence Ministry's Chief Military Inspector, Konstantin Kobets, for a list of alleged wrongs, that includes accepting a $300,000 dacha as a bribe from a private company. Kobets has already been official charged with corruption, and is currently waiting for trial in a maximum-security prison.

"Yes," said Yeltsin, "there was a time when I had distanced myself (from defence problems), but it is over...everything is in the hands of the Commander-in-Chief." Yeltsin also vowed daily to work on military reforms, and urged the Government to follow suit.

"Nothing has been done" to reform the depressed military, according to Yeltsin, who thrashed the command of the defence ministry in almost every sentence he growled. It remains unclear why Yeltsin, who has been back in business for months since recovering from pneumonia, chose to sack Rodionov now -- immediately after the minister returned from a trip to U.S. and Japan where he signed several important cooperation agreements. During a meeting with Belarus' President Alexander Lukashenko later yesterday, Yeltsin even called Rodionov and Samsonov "loafers,",who "got their due."

At the sitting of the Defence Council, however, Yeltsin expressed his dissatisfaction with Rodionov in relatively mild phrases.

"I have a very low estimate of your work," the President said. But, Yeltsin was especially upset with the slow pace of a 200,000-personnel reduction he has ordered to be completed by the end of this year. "You have reached the state when you lack plates and spoons, and you are still persistently resisting personnel cuts," Yeltsin said, addressing Rodionov.

Rodionov himself proposed to reduce Defence Ministry troops by 300,000, reducing the number of ground divisions to 12 from 78, leaving only those most combat efficient and fully operational. Rodionov said, however, the reductions in the armed forces should be accompanied by similar downsizing of Russia's 16 other ministries and agencies that command a total of almost three-million troops.

But military reform is directly related to a dire lack of financing. Currently, the Defence Ministry remains unable to pay on time even one month's salary to each of its servicemen, not to mention paying benefits under the current retirement plan for discharged officers.

Yet, Yeltsin chose to dispose of the minister and his first deputy, who have repeatedly complained about dire straits of the military and warned of impending collapse, rather than try to provide additional cash. Money is hard to come by, especially at a time when the Government is struggling with a budget, whose revenue-and-spending calculations are unrealistic.

Yeltsin said Russia can't afford spending five percent of its Gross National Product (GDP) on the military, as it does now. Earlier estimated made by the Economy Ministry put Russia's defence spending at four percent of GDP last year, but said it could be increased to five percent as Russia's economy begins to recover.

According to Yeltsin, however, the military spending should be reduced to three percent of GDP by the end of this century.

"You have forgotten what the armed force are for..the army in civilised countries should fulfill two roles: defence against military danger, global threats and local conflicts; and, second, that the army should feel it is in a country undergoing reforms," he said.

Thursday's dismissals are expected to trigger a chain of reshuffles similar to those carried out by Rodionov after he replaced Pavel Grachev last July, bringing more than a dozen of his proteges, including Samsonov, to top posts in the armed forces.

In Sergeyev's his first comments, released to Russian television after the surprise appointment, he said he will focus on "preserving combat efficient units," but didn't elaborate.

It was Sergeyev who was in the spotlight earlier this year, as he rejected Rodionov's claim that the strategic missile forces were spinning out of control due to lack of cash.

If approved, the 59-year-old Sergeyev could become Russia's second civilian Defense Minister. Sergeyev will be 60 next April, reaching the maximally allowed age for active military servicemen. Yeltsin asked Rodionov to stay on as Defense Minister last year, after Rodionov's mandatory retirement from the military, making him post-Communist Russia's first civilian defence minister.

And, also facing retirement, the Navy's chief, Felix Gromov, as well as commander of the Russian Air Force chief Pyotr Deinekin each reaches retirement age this year.