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    Yeltsin Fires Defense Chiefs

    By Lee Hockstader
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    Friday, May 23 1997; Page A01

    President Boris Yeltsin, irate over the failure of the military leadership to reform Russia's disintegrating armed forces, fired his defense minister and the chief of the general staff today and issued a blistering attack on the high command.

    "I am not just dissatisfied, I am indignant over the state of reforms in the army and the general state of the armed forces," Yeltsin said in remarks broadcast on the evening television news.

    The firings of Defense Minister Igor Rodionov -- the second defense chief Yeltsin has dumped in 10 months -- and Viktor Samsanov, head of the general staff, are further blows to the reeling Russian armed forces, which are underpaid, underfed and, as they proved in their performance in the war in Chechnya, largely unfit for battle.

    In broadening his criticism to include the notoriously corrupt corps of elite generals, who Yeltsin said "grow fatter" as "soldiers get thinner," the president signaled that an accelerated shake-up of the high command and severe cuts in the size of the 1.5-million-member military may be imminent.

    He said the generals had steadfastly refused to cut manpower and spending, which is targeted to be trimmed to 3 percent to 3.5 percent of the gross domestic product by 2000. It now stands at 5 percent of GDP.

    "You have forgotten that in a civilized state the armed forces ensure the nation's defense from military danger, global threat and local conflicts," Yeltsin thundered. "The army must also feel that it is operating in a reformed country."

    Yeltsin chose a televised meeting of his Defense Council, with top military and security officials in attendance, to launch his attack. Under the withering heat of Yeltsin's criticism, Rodionov, 60, a retired general who only a year ago was seen as a champion of reform, sat with his head bowed and stared at the table, only occasionally glancing up. When he was addressed by name, he jumped to attention, then sat down again resignedly.

    But a number of analysts, not limited to Yeltsin's political adversaries, noted that the president shares the blame for the military's pitiable state and in particular for its failure to launch any meaningful cutbacks or reforms.

    "Yeltsin has made the Russian high command responsible for the failures of a reform program whose roots are as much political as military," said John Erickson, an expert on the Russian military at the University of Edinburgh. "It's a tried and true Yeltsin technique -- blaming others for his own failures."

    Many military specialists in Russia and the West agree that any serious reform program would involve enormous expense, not least to finance the layoffs of thousands of generals and lower-ranking career officers. Yeltsin, while demanding military reform, at the same time has slashed military spending drastically.

    Rodionov, whose views are supported by his officer corps and some American analysts, has argued that it is impossible to launch a modernization program at a time when Russian military spending is half what the Defense Ministry requested and less than 80 percent of what was budgeted.

    Yeltsin has been unsympathetic to that view. He has sided with his Defense Council chief, Yuri Baturin, 47, a civilian economist who has pressed for deep cuts in military manpower, programs and bureaucracy to foster a smaller but more professional force.

    The young reformers whom Yeltsin has appointed to key positions in the government in the past few months are sympathetic to that view. "The only realistic strategy is to carry out reforms by using hidden reserves," Yegor Gaidar, a reformist former prime minister who has influence among the Young Turks at the helm of Yeltsin's government, told the Interfax news agency. Among potential savings, Gaidar mentioned trimming the 1.2-million-member defense bureaucracy, tightening lax financial controls, getting a grip on overpayments for purchases of weapons and other goods, and modernizing an outdated system of military education.

    Unlike the United States' professional, all-volunteer armed forces, the Russian military remains entirely reliant on conscription. Draft-dodging is rife, and those who serve under arms often are treated terribly. Their salaries, when they are paid at all, are a pittance. Rations are in such short supply that there have been many instances of recruits starving to death. Severe malnutrition is common. Brutal hazing leads to hundreds of deaths each year.

    A bloated officer corps has earned the disdain of enlisted men and the public for its well-documented practice of enriching itself by selling off huge stocks of military material, often using the proceeds to buy luxury cars and build lavish country houses.

    "We have reached the point where we are short of spoons and plates, but the number of servicemen and the number of generals is stubbornly not being cut," said Yeltsin. "Generals have built country cottages all over Russia. I wonder where this trend came from! Generals are not interested in reorganizing the army, because they may lose their privileges. They are the main obstacle to implementing army reforms."

    Rodionov, who had been head of the general staff's military academy, was named defense minister last summer at the urging of Alexander Lebed, a retired paratroop general who was then head of the Kremlin's Security Council. But Lebed was fired for insubordination in the fall, and Rodionov, who complained ceaselessly about cuts in spending and the perilous state of military readiness, has been in a tenuous position ever since.

    Rodionov had written extensively about military reform in his previous post but felt himself unable to implement it once in office.

    © Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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