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Yeltsin Fires 3 Cabinet Hard-Liners

Russia: Top political aide accuses trio of plotting to use troops to block July 3 vote. President does not echo charge, but dismissals continue his purge of unpopular officials.

June 21, 1996|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — After a long night of Kremlin intrigue, Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin fired three powerful Cabinet ministers Thursday, continuing a purge of unpopular hard-liners before a runoff election against his Communist challenger.

The ousted men--Gen. Alexander V. Korzhakov, Yeltsin's personal security chief; Gen. Mikhail I. Barsukov, head of the Federal Security Service; and Oleg N. Soskovets, the first deputy prime minister--formed an influential faction long reluctant to hold the presidential election for fear that the Communists will win.

Anatoly B. Chubais, a liberal economist who is Yeltsin's top campaign strategist, appeared to force Yeltsin's hand by accusing the trio of planning to block the July 3 vote with troops under their command. He met with the president just before Yeltsin announced the dismissals.

"This marks the final stage of a . . . struggle between the part of the administration that worked to ensure Yeltsin's victory in a democratic election and the part . . . that preferred to use force," Chubais told a nationally televised news conference.

"There will be no coup in Russia," he declared, his voice rising with emotion. "We will have elections in Russia."

No other action was taken against the ousted ministers, and Yeltsin did not echo his aide's accusation. Moscow was awash in conflicting official explanations for the purge and in speculation over how much it will help Yeltsin in his close race with Communist Party leader Gennady A. Zyuganov.

But it was clear that Yeltsin, who has wavered between the advice of democrats and that of Soviet-style autocrats throughout his five-year presidency, had sided firmly with the democrats in the home stretch of his reelection drive--a choice that could profoundly reshape his administration in a second term.

The three ousted officials were the most powerful remaining members of a Kremlin clique that championed secrecy and the use of force while blocking free-market reforms.

Their dismissals were evidence of the authority of retired Gen. Alexander I. Lebed, who finished third behind Yeltsin and Zyuganov in Sunday's first round of voting and who on Tuesday endorsed the president's reelection in exchange for a job overseeing reform of the defense and security establishment.

Lebed, who had already demanded and won the ouster of the hawkish Gen. Pavel S. Grachev as defense minister, intervened early Thursday to halt the detention and interrogation of two of Chubais' campaign aides by Barsukov's and Korzhakov's security services.

That incident, which started with a box stuffed with $500,000 in cash, set off a night of Kremlin infighting that ended with the dismissals of the three Cabinet officials, who were accused of fomenting the incident to smear Chubais.

The detained campaigners were Arkady Yevstafyev, a former television news executive and aide to Chubais, and Sergei Lisovsky, a show business magnate who has organized pop concerts aimed at rallying young voters for Yeltsin under the theme "Vote or You'll Lose."

Russian news agencies said the two were stopped by security guards Wednesday while leaving the White House, the seat of Russia's government, with an office-copier packing box full of U.S. dollars. The reports said the two men could not produce documents proving their assertion that the money was to pay for concerts.

Chubais, however, quoted Yevstafyev as saying the money had been "planted" in the box as part of a setup.

The guards called in officers of Barsukov's security service, one of two successor agencies to the KGB, and of Korzhakov's presidential guards, who interrogated the men for 11 hours until their release at 3 a.m.

Yevstafyev said the agents, who he said threatened to shoot him if he tried to escape, were looking for compromising materials on political enemies of Korzhakov, a 46-year-old former KGB officer with Cabinet rank and one of Yeltsin's closest companions. A spokesman for Barsukov denied the claim.

The interrogators suddenly became friendly, Chubais said, after his late-night efforts blew the detentions into a scandal on Russia's two main television channels and rallied Lebed and Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin behind him.

After trying to reach Korzhakov and Barsukov by phone, Lebed went on television early Thursday and demanded an explanation for the detentions.

"His position worked like a cold shower on hot heads," Chubais said.

Barsukov, 48, who gained notoriety in January for ordering a brutal offensive against a Russian village held by separatists from Chechnya, downplayed the detentions.

"These two people were leaving the White House with a box full of hard currency, and this drew the attention of guards at the control post," he said. "As for attempts to whip up the public and give the incident political coloring, this is a downright provocation."

Chubais offered no evidence that the incident was part of a coup attempt, saying only that it could be regarded as "the beginning of a scenario" that might have led to one.

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