Military is reluctant to choose sides TURMOIL IN RUSSIA

March 24, 1993|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau

MOSCOW -- It took only a few hours on the first day of the August 1991 coup for tank commander Sergei Yevdokimov to understand precisely where duty and honor lay.

Ordered to take up positions against President Boris N. Yeltsin, he turned his guns around to defend him, and from that dramatic moment the coup was doomed. The army had split.

Today, as political turmoil once more engulfs Moscow and the rest of the world wonders where the Russian Army stands, Lieutenant Colonel Yevdokimov answers the question without hesitation: "I don't want to take sides."

The issue of the army's allegiance has taken on increasing urgency in the last few days. Yesterday, the nation's highest court ruled that Mr. Yeltsin had violated the constitution by assuming extraordinary powers, and the president's chief antagonist, Ruslan I. Khasbulatov, said there were grounds to impeach him.

So far, military commanders have proclaimed their neutrality. They say they will maintain order and support the constitution.

Colonel Yevdokimov said no written orders have been issued regarding the current political crisis. But high officers have told their subordinates that they should be wary of any provocations and avoid reacting to them.

Military analysts here suggest that the army's neutrality could be sorely tested if parliament, led by Mr. Khasbulatov, its speaker, removes Mr. Yeltsin and installs Vice President Alexander Rutskoi in his place. Bloody consequences could ensue.

"The army is praying it can stay away from this infighting," Alexei Arbatov, a military analyst for the Institute of International Economic Relations, said in an interview yesterday. "This fight is not comprehensible to them, and they have no stake in it."

Mr. Arbatov might well have been talking about Colonel Yevdokimov. He said most officers wholeheartedly approve of the decision by Pavel Grachev, defense minister, to stay out of politics.

"Grachev was quite right," Colonel Yevdokimov said. "I hope he will keep us out of it."

Colonel Yevdokimov, then a major commanding a unit of the crack Tamanskaya tank division, said that when his superior officer ordered him to the Russian parliament where Mr. Yeltsin was holding forth against the putschists in August 1991, he quickly understood his position.

"I was sure Yeltsin was acting legally," he said. "I had my orders, and I knew if I disobeyed there would be bad consequences for me if the coup prevailed. But I decided I had to act on my own. It was a matter of conscience, of being an honest man."

Colonel Yevdokimov, 38, has been in the army 20 years. He is slight and pale, with the faintly undernourished hue of many a Russian military man. He no longer sees absolute choices before him; only confusion lies ahead.

"Now it's almost impossible to understand which side is acting legally and which is not," he said. "I listen to one side and they sound right. Then I listen to the other side and feel the same way. Who is telling the truth? I don't know."

Mr. Arbatov said that most military men perceive the dispute between Mr. Yeltsin and Mr. Khasbulatov as a personal feud between two men grappling for power.

"I am absolutely sure that this is a unique moment in our history, when the army wants more than anything else to stay away from this power fight," he said.

While the Yevdokimovs may predominate, there are some who think like Vladimir Yusef, a retired colonel who is now a member of a nationalistic military group called the Officers Assembly.

While Colonel Yevdokimov found courage and renewal in the days of August 1991, Mr. Yusef found betrayal. Mr. Yusef, who is 46, left the army after 29 years' service in 1991 after Mr. Yeltsin banned political activity in the military.

L "The army can't be separated from politics," Mr. Yusef said.

"Yeltsin violated the constitution," he said. "He is now an outlaw." Mr. Yusef is among the tired faces of the elderly, disappointed Communists, nationalists and other extremists, neglected by the new times, who have gathered to support parliament in its confrontation against Mr. Yeltsin. He is angry that Russia is considering privatizing land. "Is there any other country in the world where land is given forever, to be bought and sold?" he demanded.

Vladimir Makarikov, a member of the nationalistic Russian Unity group, was walking around yesterday in camouflage fatigues with a walkie-talkie. He looked as if he was enjoying every minute of it.

When guns were needed, he said, they could be captured from democrats.

"They are ready to fight," he said. "We are, too."

If pushed hard enough, Mr. Arbatov said, an army already straining to cope with diminished status and a reorganized post-Cold War world could indeed split.

"The fringe groups might become centers of gravity," he said. "Now they only survive because of neglect and general chaos."

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