. . . And at Home

March 02, 1994

The key role U.N. ground troops from Russia are playing in Bosnia may not directly strengthen embattled President Boris N. Yeltsin. But to a nation traumatized by chaos and the loss of a long-maintained world-class status, the success serves as a palliative. It also helps to restore the tarnished prestige of the military -- humiliated and demoralized by a pull-out from Eastern Europe and pull-back from the Baltics and other former Soviet republics -- in the eyes of ordinary Russians.

These are important considerations in the fluid political situation that exists in Moscow. After it emerged as a crucial power broker and aborted the coup against Mr. Yeltsin last October, the military has been increasing its clout in domestic affairs. So far, the generals and colonels have been satisfied with a security role and have not exhibited the kinds of power ambitions often seen in turbulent Latin American, African or Asian countries.

In fact, in coup attempts against the government of the day the military establishment has now repeatedly refused to support hothead rebels from its own ranks -- such as Gen. Alexander V. Rutskoi, a former vice president.

This behavior makes the military a pivotal player in the drawn-out power struggle in the Kremlin.

The anti-reformist majority of the Russian parliament deliberately cut President Yeltsin's stature last week, when it voted to pardon the plotters who had tried to oust him last fall and Mikhail S. Gorbachev in 1991. To ordinary Russians who had been confused about chaotic politics, the signal was clear: The balance of power had shifted into the hands of anti-reformist politicians doing the bidding of the military-scientific complex, semi-privatized industrial giants, bankrupt collective farms and joint ventures hiding Communist Party wealth.

Their action was a deliberate snub at Mr. Yeltsin and a setback to his quarrelsome but vainglorious reformers. But it is not the end of the game, just a reshuffle of a hand.

Unlike the former KGB colossus, which has been proven disloyal, the Russian military has supported the government, however much it may have disagreed with Kremlin policies. The military men and women do not represent a monolith of interests by any means. But they are a responsible -- albeit conservative -- force. If handled prudently, they could be the stabilizing element Russia so desperately needs in charting an orderly future.

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