Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 207

The power struggle among Russia’s rival political-financial groups appears to be reaching new heights of Byzantine intrigue, with the Chechen conflict lying at the center of the latest round of charges and countercharges. Moskovsky komsomolets–a newspaper which generally supports Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and has been highly critical of the Kremlin–reported that President Boris Yeltsin unexpectedly cut short his vacation in Sochi and returned to Moscow on November 3 because a conflict had broken out between members of his inner circle and Russia’s military brass. According to unnamed sources, Kremlin administration chief Aleksandr Voloshin and deputy administration Sergei Prikhodko, concerned about the effect of the Chechen conflict and concomitant refugee crisis on Russia’s image in the West, informed the Armed Forces’ General Staff that negotiations between the Kremlin and Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov might soon get underway. General Anatoly Kvashnin, head of the Armed Forces’ General Staff, contacted Yeltsin in Sochi and vowed to resign if the Voloshin-Prikhodko initiative were acted on. Yeltsin reportedly repeated his promise that the Chechnya operation would continue without cessation, but then decided to return to Moscow, where he met with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to discuss Kvashnin’s demarche (Moskovsky komsomolets, November 5).

Over the weekend, Kvashnin and Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev released a statement categorically denying these events as reported, calling the account “lies, slander and disinformation” aimed at creating splits between Russia’s civilian and military leadership for political purposes (Russian agencies, November 6).

Meanwhile, the newspaper Nezavisimaya gazeta and Russian Public Television–both generally thought to be controlled by Kremlin insider Boris Berezovsky–alleged over the weekend that Fatherland-All Russia (OVR), the election coalition headed by Luzhkov and former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, had dispatched a group of influential officials and supporters to the West to convince Western governments that they should pressure Yeltsin to fire Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. The OVR delegation is made up of Igor Malashenko, deputy head of the board of directors of the Media-Most group; Sergei Yastrzhembsky, deputy prime minister of the Moscow city government; and Sergei Karaganov, who heads the pro-Primakov Council on Foreign and Defense Policy. According to the Berezovsky-controlled media, the OVR officials will also try to convince Western leaders that Primakov should be brought back in to the prime ministerial post–a move the West supposedly would support because, as ORT’s Sergei Dorenko put it, Primakov is weak and easily manipulated, while Putin is not. Washington is supposedly worried that “the success of Moscow’s operation to take the mutinous republic of Chechnya under control will lead to the radical strengthening of Russia’s position not only in the Caucasus region, but in the world in general.” During the summit of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe–which is scheduled for November 18-19 in Istanbul, and which Yeltsin plans to attend–Western leaders will reportedly demand that he end the Chechen military operation and begin negotiations with Maskhadov, and may also ask that Putin be removed (Nezavisimaya gazeta, November 6; ORT, November 7).

The sense of intrigue was heightened over the weekend by a report that Yeltsin had already decided to end the military operation in Chechnya and had ordered Putin both to begin negotiations with Maskhadov by today and to fire General Staff chief Kvashnin and Foreign Intelligence Service Director Vyacheslav Trubnikov (Komsomolskaya pravda, November 6). According to this account, which was based on an anonymous source described as “well-known” and reliable, Putin was told that he will be fired if he does not carry out these orders immediately. The source said that Federation Council Speaker Yegor Stroev had already been approached to replace Putin but had refused, that Putin’s likely replacement would be Minister for Emergency Situations Sergei Shoigu, and that Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo would become secretary of the powerful Security Council, a post Putin now holds.

What is interesting about all this speculation is that, on the one hand, the Berezovsky-controlled press is warning of moves against Putin and seems to be defending the prime minister. Berezovsky himself said that Putin, whom Yeltsin designated as his heir last August, was the best potential candidate for the Russian presidency (Russian agencies, November 6). Yet while pro-Luzhkov media like NTV television have become increasingly critical of Putin, it is quite possible that Berezovsky has engineered the prime minister’s ouster while using his own media to blame Luzhkov and Primakov for it. Were Shoigu to replace Putin and Rushailo to become secretary of the Security Council, as was suggested, Berezovsky’s position would be greatly strengthened, because both men are generally viewed as key Berezovsky allies. On top of that, the November 5 decision by the Prosecutor General’s Office to drop criminal charges against Berezovsky for his alleged involvement in embezzling funds from the state airline Aeroflot serves as yet another indication that the tycoon continues to exercise strong influence over people in high places (Russian agencies, November 5).