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Yeltsin Fires 3 Cabinet Hard-Liners

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

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“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.”

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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.

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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.

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“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.

He said Wednesday’s detentions were an effort to discredit him, throw the Yeltsin campaign into confusion and make the president susceptible to appeals to declare a state of emergency and postpone the election. He said Soskovets had often discussed such a scenario with Korzhakov and Barsukov, who command about 25,000 troops between them.

“I think their aim in the next phase was to violate the law,” Chubais said.

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Other presidential advisors disputed the claim that a coup was being planned, saying the hard-liners wanted merely to discredit Chubais so they could diminish the role of reformers in a second Yeltsin term.

Lebed said his “first impression” was that the election was in danger, and he warned on television early Thursday that “any mutiny will be crushed.” But later, at a news conference, he dismissed the detentions as insignificant.

“I am not interested in this murky case,” he said.

Yeltsin’s campaign has been beset by internal feuding since it began in February.

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Soskovets, 47, a former Soviet metals industry boss who represented the military-industrial complex in the government, ran the campaign at the start. He urged the president to try to beat the front-running Communist candidate by looking more hawkish and adopting Communist positions.

But the incumbent’s poll ratings remained dismal, and Chubais, a leading free-market reformer, took over. On his advice, Yeltsin moved to end the war in the separatist republic of Chechnya, embraced reform policies and ran a vigorous meet-the-people campaign.

Korzhakov created an uproar last month when he proposed that the election be called off, but Yeltsin told him to keep his mouth shut, and the campaign rolled on.

Yeltsin came from behind to win 35.28% of the vote in Sunday’s 10-man race to Zyuganov’s 32.04%, according to final returns announced Thursday.

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Chubais said he demanded the dismissals in a 25-minute meeting with Yeltsin. He said the president had “a very rough night . . . with a lot of psychological stress” over the detentions scandal.

Yeltsin said later, however, that the dismissals had nothing to do with the detentions, which he called “a technical affair,” but “with the aim of strengthening and renewing [my] team.”

“I have always been reproached for Barsukov, Korzhakov, Soskovets,” he said. “Should the president work for them? They began to take on too much and give too little.”

Chernomyrdin said he was instrumental in getting Soskovets fired for “serious mistakes in the restructuring of industry and the conversion of defense enterprises.”

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Yeltsin named Nikolai Kovalev, Barsukov’s top deputy, as acting chief of the security service, and Yuri Krapivin, head of the federal bodyguard service, to replace Korzhakov. Soskovets was not replaced.

Many politicians said the dismissals were certain to help Yeltsin’s popularity with voters by ridding him of unpopular aides. Grachev, Korzhakov and Soskovets were leaders of the so-called party of war that led Yeltsin into the costly, 18-month-old conflict in Chechnya.

But Viktor V. Ilyushin, Yeltsin’s closest advisor, said Wednesday’s detentions were “inflicting serious damage” on the president’s campaign.

Zyuganov was quick to capitalize on the situation, saying the president had “created a mess with these dismissals, without explaining the reasons or consequences.”

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“They are turning life into a comedy,” he added, and treating Russia like “a banana republic.”

In any case, Korzhakov, possibly the most despised figure in Yeltsin’s entourage, is unlikely to leave the scene.

“I have backed the president and I will continue to back him,” he told the Interfax news agency. “I am not quitting the presidential team and will do everything to ensure Boris Yeltsin’s victory in the elections.”

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

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Deposed in the Kremlin

The three powerful Russian hard-liners fired Thursday:

ALEXANDER V. KORZHAKOV: Yeltsin’s shadowy bodyguard, confidant and friend. Wielded enormous power in the Kremlin as head of Presidential Security Service. Last month suggested that the presidential vote be called off, warning that an election would lead to violence. Former KGB agent, Yeltsin’s bodyguard since he came to Moscow in 1985. When Yeltsin was expelled from Politburo in 1987, Korzhakov went with him, offering to work without pay. Age 46.

OLEG N. SOSKOVETS: Former metals industry boss appointed first deputy prime minister in January 1994. In charge of ministries of Energy, Transport, Communications, Railways, Construction, Nuclear Power, and Health Care and Medical Industry. Age 47.

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MIKHAIL I. BARSUKOV: Head of the Federal Security Service, successor to the KGB, since July. Rose through the ranks of Kremlin guards to become commander in June 1992. Commanded elite troops in October 1993 attack against Yeltsin’s armed foes in parliament building. Yeltsin loyalist and Korzhakov ally. Age 48.


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