Yeltsin Fires Defense Minister

MOSCOW (Reuter)–President Boris Yeltsin–furious over high-level army corruption and a lack of military reforms–Thursday abruptly sacked Defense Minister Igor Rodionov and the head of the general staff–Viktor Samsonov.

"They deserved such a decision by doing nothing and they got it," Interfax news agency quoted Yeltsin as telling reporters when he met Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko.

The Kremlin said Yeltsin had appointed 59-year-old Army General Igor Sergeyev–commander of the strategic forces–as acting defense minister.

Interfax–quoting military sources–said Yeltsin replaced Samsonov with a loyal ally–Lieutenant General Viktor Chechevatov–commander of the Far East military district. There was no official confirmation of the report.

The head of the general staff is number two in the armed forces. He is the third person–after the president and the defense minister–to have control over the use of nuclear weapons.

Speaking at a meeting of his advisory Defense Council on military reform–Yeltsin accused the military top brass of doing nothing to reform the army and said many more heads would roll if the situation did not change.

"I am not simply dissatisfied–I am indignant over the state of reforms in the army and the general state of the armed forces," Yeltsin–clearly outraged–said in televised remarks.

"The soldier is losing weight while the general is getting fatter," Yeltsin said in a reference to high-level corruption scandals embroiling the top brass.

"We have reached the point when we are short of spoons and plates but the number of servicemen and the number of generals is stubbornly not being cut," he said.

Military prosecutors on Wednesday arrested one of the country’s top generals–deputy defense minister Konstantin Kobets–previously acclaimed as a hero for his defense of Yeltsin in a failed hard-line communist coup in 1991.

Kobets is accused of corruption but denies the charges.

Land Forces Commander General Vladimir Semyonov was sacked after corruption charges last month–which he too denies.

Military prosecutors say about 20 generals and 100 colonels are under investigation for graft. Stories abound of army stores–from rations to rockets–being sold off for private profit and of defense contractors building lavish country homes for the top brass in exchange for lucrative army orders.

Rodionov–60–was appointed last July under pressure from senior generals and security adviser Alexander Lebed–who was also later sacked.

Yeltsin–who is commander-in-chief of the armed forces–promised during his re-election campaign last year to end conscription by 2000 and create a modern–professional army.

But the plan has run into a shortage of funds and a marked lack of enthusiasm in the upper ran’s.

"You should be telling me today what you have done. You have nothing to say. Many of you will not be here if you proceed like this," Yeltsin told the meeting.

Rodionov had been at odds with Yeltsin’s top defense adviser–Yuri Baturin–over the course of military reforms. The minister said the state must provide more money before change to the underfunded and demoralized force could start.

Baturin–who told Russian news agencies Yeltsin had only decided to sack the minister after the Council’s meeting had started–has been advocating a different approach. He says reforms should be based on what the state can afford.

Yeltsin clearly backed this point of view.

"Russia cannot afford such expense," Yeltsin said–adding that by 2000 military expenditure should be no more than 3.5 percent of Gross Domestic Product compared to five percent now.

After shaking up the government by promoting a team of young reformers–Yeltsin said he was ready to take on the military–many of whose 1.8 million men are unhappy after the army’s humiliation at the hands of Chechen separatists in a 1994-96 war.

Yeltsin–who was out of action for nearly eight months in 1996 and early this year due to heart problems and then pneumonia–said he would now follow military affairs daily.

Next week he flies to Paris to sign an accord with Moscow’s former Cold War foe NATO.

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