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1 Country, 2 Leaders and a Lot of Confusion : Russia: Power struggle leaves military and bureaucracy wondering who's in charge. For now, Yeltsin has upper hand.

September 23, 1993|JOHN-THOR DAHLBURG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — So who does Lt. Col. V.N. Krasnov salute now?

The 28-year veteran of the Russian air force, three strips of campaign ribbons on his left breast, drew in his breath sharply and fingered his ear while thinking hard.

"Well," the bantam-sized officer said finally, "I gave an oath to serve the people, the Supreme Soviet and the government." Gaining confidence as he spoke, the flier who now serves in a Moscow headquarters detachment added in a firmer voice: "Where the people go, we will go."

But it is not "the people" who will decide the battle for power now spreading across Russia. It is the bureaucracies--the armed forces first among them--and local leaders and city or regional councils from Vologda to Vladivostok.

Confronted with rival presidents and contesting administrations, the uncertain Krasnov and millions of other Russian soldiers, police, office workers and elected officials were face to face with a crucial, almost surreal choice Wednesday: Which of the competing, mirror-image authorities to obey?

In Moscow, the first full day of crisis left the score definitely in Boris N. Yeltsin's favor, but across Russia, the shakeout was just starting. One of Yeltsin's closest advisers said the contest for power could last more than a week.

Yeltsin and his enemies both talked of constitutionality and the public weal. But one day after Yeltsin ordered Parliament dissolved, and Vice President Alexander V. Rutskoi was empowered by lawmakers as Russia's new (and competing) president, the crunch issue was not the parsing of legal texts but who could get control of the country's military and naval bases, the telephone network, Moscow's Ostankino television tower, Aeroflot's fleet of jets and the country's millions upon millions of pencil-pushing clerks.

Twenty-four hours after his bombshell announcement, Yeltsin had managed to keep the Cabinet firmly in hand, with the resignation of only the top official for foreign trade and the leadership of the key "power ministries"--Defense, Interior and Security--all on board.

"We are convinced that we fully control the situation, and we are also sure that the armed forces, the bodies of the Interior Ministry and the forces of the Ministry of Security are acting as a solid fist," Interior Minister Viktor F. Yerin said.

Standing beside Yerin across from a McDonald's restaurant, Yeltsin's defense minister, Gen. Pavel S. Grachev, offered assurances in an impromptu sidewalk news conference that he had checked with commanders in the field, who checked with their subordinates, and that Russian soldiers would take orders only from him.

And the chemodanshchik , the large black suitcase that holds the launch codes for Russia's nuclear arsenal, has not budged.

Parliament Chairman Ruslan I. Khasbulatov has called on the troops to disobey Yeltsin. But even die-hard foes of the president, such as retired army Lt. Gen. Mikhail G. Titov, acknowledged that it will be virtually impossible to swing the military over to Rutskoi and Parliament as long as the existing chain of command remains unbroken.

"The army can obey only one commander in chief, it cannot obey two," the two-star general, in uniform, said outside the Supreme Soviet legislature chamber. "I would say that 80% of the army today is against Yeltsin. But they are disciplined. They obey the orders of their superiors. They were ordered not to leave the barracks, and they are not leaving them."

That inactivity is likely to work in Yeltsin's favor, but experts doubt that he can ask for more. First Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir F. Shumeiko said that Yeltsin's Tuesday ukase assigns the military the sole task of preserving Russia as a state. Yeltsin himself on Wednesday assured his countrymen: "There will be no blood."

At the White House, the seat of Rutskoi's would-be presidency, there were small but unmistakable signs that whatever the great constitutional issues involved, Communists and conservatives were proving incapable of getting their hands on the nitty-gritty of government.

The special telephone network run by the Ministry of Communications that connects the maze of state agencies was cut off to Parliament headquarters, meaning that Rutskoi and Khasbulatov could not assert control over the bureaucracy.

White House employees said the fleet of four-door sedans that usually shows up in the morning for deputies had been blocked in their parking lot, forcing anti-Yeltsin leaders such as Mikhail G. Astafiev to walk.

From Russia's provinces came reports that deputies trying to fly to Moscow so the Congress of People's Deputies can convene were turned away at the airport gate, told that their special free tickets were now invalid.

Television, solidly held by Yeltsin's allies, painted a thoroughly one-sided picture of events, making it that much harder for Rutskoi to persuade the Russian people and local dignitaries of his legitimacy.

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