Yeltsin names Rodionov defense chief Lebed choice is known for fatal suppression of 1989 independence rally

July 18, 1996|By Clara Germani | Clara Germani,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Physically ailing but still working to reshape his Kremlin team, President Boris N. Yeltsin yesterday named as defense minister Gen. Igor Rodionov, a figure best known for bloodily suppressing a peaceful pro-independence rally in Soviet Georgia.

Rodionov, 59, was security chief Alexander I. Lebed's top choice for the post, and the appointment was one of Yeltsin's rewards to Lebed for his role in a Kremlin power struggle and for helping swing support to him in presidential elections earlier this month.

Yeltsin's choice of the tough commander was the second major appointment made this week by the president from the sanitarium where he is said to be vacationing.

Liberal reformer Anatoly Chubais was named chief of staff Monday, the day Yeltsin raised new concerns about his health by canceling a scheduled meeting with with U.S. Vice President Al Gore and checking into the sanitarium.

But the tinkering with Kremlin personnel is considered pure Yeltsin genius -- the type of political insight that has enabled him to crawl back from cliffhanging situations that have threatened to end his career time and again.

"Yeltsin is a great master of balancing his entourage," said Andrei Piontkowsky, a political analyst.

"Everyone was apprehensive about Lebed's ambitions two weeks ago, so Yeltsin first created strong elements of balance in advance with the appointment of Chubais and [the reappointment of Prime Minister Viktor S.] Chernomyrdin."

"To have refused Lebed the Rodionov appointment would have been a deliberate snub that probably would have caused Lebed to resign. By waiting and building the two strong balancing figures, Yeltsin could then appoint Rodionov," Piontkowsky said.

Lebed, a tough-talking military man who won 15 million votes in the first round of presidential elections, was offered the job of chief of national security in return for his crucial support in the runoff July 3.

The appointment set off a round of firings of hard-liners in the Kremlin, including former Defense Minister Pavel S. Grachev, a long-time foe of Lebed.

Lebed's claims to power in matters as diverse as social and economic affairs raised concerns about how much influence the nationalist general-turned-politician would have over presidential advisers concerned with political and economic reform.

Rodionov's most crucial tasks are to manage Russia's bloody and so far inept military actions against the separatist rebellion in Chechnya and to bring much-needed reform to the demoralized armed forces. In a military beset by corruption, Rodionov has had a reputation for honesty.

Rodionov, who has been head of the General Staff Military Academy for six years, was a military adviser in 1995 to Lebed's successful election campaign for Parliament. He served with Lebed in the Soviet army in Afghanistan in the mid-1980s and later in Georgia.

Rodionov worries some liberals because of the bloody Georgian incident. He was commander of the Soviet Transcaucasus military district in April 1989, when his troops attacked a peaceful pro-independence demonstration in the Georgian capital, Tbilsi, with shovels, clubs and poisonous chemicals. A number of civilians were killed.

The bloodshed was widely condemned, and Rodionov was removed from his command and transferred to the military academy post.

In spite of his tainted past, the general today "sounds very reasonable in his writings," Piontkowsky said.

"Mainly he realizes that the structure of the Defense Ministry and military forces must correspond to the new geopolitical reality -- that Russia's forces will be more modest than the Soviet Union's," Piontkowsky said.

"He's considered a hard-nosed military guy who is realistic about what can be done," said a Western diplomat familiar with military affairs. "He has a better reputation [than his predecessor] and no known association with corruption."

Pub Date: 7/18/96

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