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Yeltsin Fires Generals Accused of Plotting

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a burst of preelection realpolitik, Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin bowed to the wishes of his popular new security chief, Alexander I. Lebed, on Tuesday and fired seven army generals whom Lebed accused last week of plotting a coup.

The seven were close to hawkish former Defense Minister Pavel S. Grachev, the Kremlin’s most hated figure. Yeltsin fired him last week to please Lebed.

A consummate politician, Yeltsin is taking crowd-pleasing steps before Russia’s presidential runoff next Wednesday after finishing just three percentage points ahead of Communist Gennady A. Zyuganov in the first round of voting, with 35% to Zyuganov’s 32%.

Russian political analysts agree that Yeltsin’s masterstroke so far has been to win over Lebed by appointing him head of the powerful Security Council. The gravel-voiced retired general won a surprising 15% of votes in the first round with his law-and-order platform.

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“Yeltsin’s main and only task at the moment is to get reelected. By signing up Lebed, Yeltsin proved himself the best and cleverest politician in town,” political commentator Pavel Felgengauer said.

But liberals are concerned about how far Yeltsin will go to accommodate his new ally, whose sympathies tend toward the authoritarian end of the political spectrum, and what the rise of Lebed means for Russia’s fragile democracy.

Tuesday’s dismissals may be a sign of harsher times to come, the daily newspaper Izvestia said in an analysis headlined “Sackings, Lebed-style.”

Evidence of the seven generals’ involvement in an actual coup plot remains hazy. The Interfax news agency quoted one of them, Col. Gen. Dmitri Kharchenko, as saying he was “staggered” and “never expected such a turn of events.”

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Lebed, who was appointed at the same time Grachev was fired early last week, created a stir with his allegation that the generals wanted to pressure Yeltsin into keeping their minister in power. He called this a repeat of the 1991 coup attempt that nearly tumbled Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev from power.

Later, however, Lebed retreated from his statement, saying he had been misquoted and never intended to suggest a coup was in the offing.

“Many observers say the firings are not really justified. Some of the people fired are generals whose behavior compromised their rank and calling. But others really are injured innocents,” Izvestia said.

“What this shows is that Yeltsin is willing to satisfy a lot of the demands of his new security chief--or should we say all his demands?”

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With the key post of defense minister still open, observers--looking for clues as to whether military policy will harden--are waiting to see what candidate Lebed puts forward. Yeltsin has given him new powers to recommend who gets top military jobs.

A popular choice would be Boris V. Gromov, who brought the Soviet army back from Afghanistan. But Lebed’s candidate, according to Felgengauer, is Col. Gen. Igor N. Rodionov--who says he will accept the job if offered it.

Rodionov has spent the last six years quietly running a military staff academy. He was shunted into that job after inciting the fury of democrats across the former Soviet Union in 1989, when he ordered troops to use force to break up an anti-Kremlin protest in Tbilisi, the capital of the then-Soviet republic of Georgia.


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