Like Punxsutawney Phil on February 2, Boris Yeltsin emerged from his hospital on December 7, fired a bunch of aides, signed a decree and went back to snuggle under the covers for a few days more.

The fired aides–the chief of staff and three of his deputies–apparently were punished for suggesting that the president had lost some of his pop. They quickly found work elsewhere in the presidential administration.

More significantly, the president signed a decree placing the Defense and Interior Ministries and the Federal Security Service (the “power ministries” which control armed forces) under his direct control, taking Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov out of the chain of command. If Yeltsin’s spokesmen and spin doctors are taken at their word, the point of the exercise is to put “power in one fist” and renew the fight against corruption and crime.

In a country choking on murder, extortion and bribery, crime may sadden but rarely horrifies. But there are exceptions. Last week in western Chechnya, the lawless republic which is still nominally part of the Russian Federation, four severed heads were found in a sack by the side of a road. The heads belonged to kidnap victims, three British nationals and a New Zealander, employees of a UK firm engaged to install a wireless phone system in the Chechen capital of Djohar. Chechnya’s president immediately blamed the murder on “foreign forces,” but authorities arrested and charged a Chechen who reportedly (and with unsettling rapidity) confessed and ratted out his accomplices.

It would not be too great a strain of logic to blame this crime in part on Boris Yeltsin, who in 1994-1996 conducted a brutish war in Chechnya that left some 35,000 civilians dead, destroyed the cities, ravaged the countryside, resolved nothing and abandoned the region to poverty, anarchy, and despair.