Prague, 4 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Russia's President Boris Yeltsin yesterday shook up the country's defense establishment by abolishing the Defense Council, and merging the State Military Inspectorate with the Security Council. All three agencies were, until now, dealing with various aspects of military and security policies.
Simultaneously, Yeltsin appointed former Defense Council Secretary and State Military Inspector Andrei Kokoshkin as Secretary of the Security Council, replacing Ivan Rybkin, who had been named two days ago Deputy Prime Minister for CIS affairs.
These moves were explained by Yeltsin's spokesman, Sergei Yastrzhembski as "aimed at closer coordination of efforts toward reforming the system of defense and security, as a whole."
The reformist theme has been affirmed by some Western press correspondents, who saw the institutional move as exemplifying an "effort to reform Russia's chaotic military ... in the hope of coordinating military reform and policy" (The Independent), and Kokoshkin's appointment as "strengthening civilian control over the military" (The Financial Times). The new "civilian-led" Security Council is to supervise both the Defense Ministry and the security services, although its specific prerogatives are not clear.
There is indeed strong reason to assume that Yeltsin imposed those changes to streamline defense and security operations. The Russian defense establishment has, for some time now, experienced severe crisis of morale, suffering form managerial misdirection. There has been a palpable need for change and restructuring, and the recurrent efforts to do so have, so far, been fruitless.
This is particularly true with regard to the proliferation of essentially unimportant agencies. It has been known, for example, that the Defense Council was set up two years ago merely to counterbalance the political influence of General Aleksandr Lebed, then Secretary of the Security Council. Following Lebed's ouster, the Defense Council has lost its political significance. The decision to abolish it appears merely as the logical consequence of the existing situation.
Similar considerations may explain the merger of the State Military Inspectorate and the Security Council. The elevation of Kokoshkin, former head of the Inspectorate, has only facilitated the move.
Kokoshkin is to present to Yeltsin, within a month, proposals for reforming the organization of the new Security Council and plans for its operations.
As for Rybkin, it seems that he preserved a seat at the council, while taking control over CIS affairs. It is still not certain whether Rybkin's transfer to the government position is a promotion or a demotion. It is widely acknowledged that the post of Deputy Prime Minister in charge of CIS matters does not carry much weight in the political and administrative hierarchy. Its functions have been vague, its authority ill-defined and effectiveness highly questionable.
But, then, Rybkin's appointment could mean that Yeltsin wanted to make that office more important. Rybkin has been Yeltsin's loyal supporter, and he has demonstrated his operational effectiveness in dealing with rebellious Chechnya. It appears, in fact, that he is still to oversee Moscow's policies toward Chechnya. Some Russian newspapers have already speculated that Rybkin's appointment is politically important, and that he will force further changes in the government's bureaucracy. Moreover, at least one newspaper, Moscow Kommersant, has hinted that Rybkin's appointment signaled a new emphasis on strengthening Russia's role in Caspian Oil politics, while also revealing behind the scene influences of some Russian financial groups.
Caspian oil politics, in general, and efforts to develop oil transportation routes from the Caspian region to the West, in particular, are currently at the heart of Moscow's CIS policies. Russia insists on imposing a measure of control over those routes, while some Central Asian states -- all members of the CIS -- appear increasingly unwilling to heed those demands.
Kommersant further speculates that Rybkin may support growing involvement in, and interest of, private Russian financial groups, particularly those linked to Boris Berezovsky, in the Caspian region. Berezovsky used to work in the Security Council under Rybkin, and the two men are said to be close. In this way, the essentially administrative change is presented in the paper as a major policy decision with perhaps elements of a private financial game.
Those speculations, however, do little to advance understanding of the recent governmental reshuffles. It could be that they have been motivated by the long-awaited decision to streamline administrative effectiveness and develop new policies.
But it also possible that they are merely maneuvers designed to create a public image of movement and decisiveness.
The Russian government and political establishment have experienced several changes in recent years. But they have been largely limited to personnel shuffles, and involved little, if any, significant departures in policy. It is not clear whether the current moves are any different from the previous ones.