NEWS ANALYSIS : Alleged Coup Plot Points to Russia’s Fragile Democracy
Allegations of a coup attempt in Russia on Thursday have renewed the worst suspicions about ousted Kremlin security chief Alexander V. Korzhakov and serve as an unsettling reminder of how easily an armed faction could throw this country into a new era of chaos.
Korzhakov and the rest of the security hawks who have long occupied the Kremlin may have been fired by President Boris N. Yeltsin for their alleged plot to derail the July 3 presidential election, but their sway with the shadowy special forces who guard the leadership is not expected to be so easily broken.
Russia’s army is in such disarray that it cannot be counted on to respond effectively to a political crisis.
If Korzhakov and other sacked security officials were to call upon their former foot soldiers to remove a head of state they believed had betrayed them, there might be little that Yeltsin and his tough-talking new national security chief, retired Gen. Alexander I. Lebed, could do to prevent a hard-line junta from seizing power.
Lebed enjoys respect among some factions of the fractured army officers corps and with middle-aged and older Russians who view his illustrious military career as evidence that he is an honest patriot. But without the rank and file behind them, even those officers dedicated enough to come to the defense of their commander in chief in a political power struggle might have little strength in a showdown against crack security forces.
There is also considerable doubt now that enough Russians with a stake in the new system would come to the rescue of an embattled leader, as they did after the coup attempt by Communist hard-liners in 1991.
Millions of Russians, intoxicated by the first heady days of democratization, shored up Yeltsin’s dramatic defense of former Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev during that first world-rattling clash five years ago.
Today, however, Russians are exhausted by the upheavals that have repeatedly racked their country.
“No one wants to get involved in these power conflicts anymore. People are sick to death of conflict, and they are afraid,” said Vladimir Kumachev, a national security advisor on the Presidential Council, an advisory panel to the chief executive.
Kumachev said he doubts official claims that Korzhakov and his top lieutenants had a coup in mind, but he said he was disturbed by the reports in any case because of the volatile atmosphere as the nation approaches the culmination of the presidential election.
“This is a very tense and unpredictable time,” the security advisor said, the worry clear in his voice.
The 46-year-old Korzhakov, a former KGB general and onetime auto mechanic who has been Yeltsin’s personal bodyguard for more than a decade, was blamed by Yeltsin advisors for the incident at the Russian government building late Wednesday that has since been described as the prelude to a coup attempt.
On orders from Korzhakov and his ally at the helm of the Federal Security Service, Mikhail I. Barsukov, two Yeltsin campaign staffers were detained leaving the White House with a box filled with about $500,000 in cash.
Anatoly B. Chubais, the former privatization chief who is now among the directors of Yeltsin’s reelection team, told journalists that the administration has reason to believe that Korzhakov and Barsukov provoked the all-night standoff with the campaign workers to create a pretext for calling off the July 3 runoff between Yeltsin and Communist Party chief Gennady A. Zyuganov.
Western diplomats with close ties to the Yeltsin camp say the president’s backers are a lot more worried about his reelection chances than they have been letting on publicly.
“A lot of Russians see Yeltsin’s showing in the first round as a failure,” one senior political attache said. “They see a guy who had all this money, all this air time, all this power, and still he manages to win only a third of the vote.”
Fearful of a Yeltsin failure, the security entourage intervened to ensure that the Kremlin would stay in their benefactor’s hands, Chubais stated.
But some analysts remained unsettled by the fact that Korzhakov was not arrested. He gave an interview to the Interfax news agency in which he condemned Chubais as “a delusion for Russia” and said the liberal economist’s version of events was “100% lies.”
There was also some speculation that the Yeltsin team staged the White House incident to shake pro-reform voters out of their complacency.
But such a move could backfire, casting the president as a poor judge of character and setting the stage for a real confrontation.
Conflicting explanations of the White House incident among Yeltsin’s chief advisors further clouded the picture Thursday.
While Chubais was accusing the security chieftains of conspiring to thwart the election, senior Yeltsin aide Georgy A. Satarov was explaining the incident as a relatively harmless effort by Korzhakov and company to position themselves to get some of the credit if Yeltsin is reelected.
Another Yeltsin advisor, Sergei A. Karaganov, said the security men’s actions were “very small, petty, an administrative illegality.”
Lebed vowed to treat “without mercy” those who would disrupt the democratic process, but the newly appointed national security chief sidestepped all questions about the role of Korzhakov and why it took Yeltsin so long to sack him.
Korzhakov disquieted Russians and much of the outside world last month when he publicly proposed that the presidential election be canceled. Yeltsin issued a mild reprimand, saying his bodyguard should bow out of politics. But the burly security chief with a menacing disposition remained at the president’s side.
Security analysts have long speculated that Korzhakov might resort to force to preserve his powerful empire in the event Yeltsin was voted out of office or if the president attempted the kind of political housecleaning he has accomplished over the last few days.
In tandem with the appointment of Lebed as security chief was the dismissal of Defense Minister Pavel S. Grachev, whom Lebed accused on Tuesday of trying to organize a putsch to protect his job and those of other hawkish generals.
As head of Kremlin security, Korzhakov had command over the 10,000-strong Presidential Security Service and de facto control over the 15,000 troops of the Main Directorate for the Protection of the Russian Federation--the vast and heavily armed agency responsible for maintaining public order and guarding government officials.
There are also tens of thousands of elite Interior Ministry troops whose allegiances are based on arms-trading schemes and protection rackets, and many of them may fear Lebed’s mission to root out corruption.