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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Snub Hints at Lebed's Growing Isolation

Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin took his maiden steps as Russia's effective acting president Friday, but was promptly upstaged by Security Council secretary Alexander Lebed who snubbed him at a top-level meeting on army reform.

Chernomyrdin chaired the first session of the recently created Defense Council on Friday morning, yet Lebed, the man who is supposed to be President Boris Yeltsin's top aide on security matters, failed to show up.

Later, the prime minister flew to Kazakhstan to represent Russia at a summit meeting of Central Asian presidents to discuss the recent developments in Afghanistan.

A spokesman for the prime minister said Friday that Lebed had perhaps mistaken the time for the Defense Council meeting. But a Lebed aide said the ex-paratrooper knew exactly when he was expected -- he was just too busy to make it.

Whether or not Lebed intended the snub, speculation immediately began to swirl.

The new Defense Council, whose functions are still vaguely defined, is widely thought to have been formed by Yeltsin as a counterweight to the Security Council, of which the politically ambitious Lebed is the secretary.

On the Defense Council, Chernomyrdin outranks Lebed, while Yeltsin's security adviser, Yury Baturin, is the secretary. Baturin, appearing on television Friday, denied the council had been set up as a counterweight to Lebed or the Security Council.

Yeltsin appeared to have set the stage for the showdown Thursday, when in an address to the nation on television, the ailing president said of Lebed: "You can't quarrel with everyone all the time. You can't settle issues that way. Our state apparatus must live in peace."

In an earlier radio address, Yeltsin had also said he was "very worried about the situation in the armed forces," and that one of Russia's top priorities was to weed out military corruption and create a modern and effective defense force.

Friday's closed-door Defense Council session was intended to start setting the agenda for just that. In attendance were the so-called "power ministers," including the man Lebed pushed to have appointed defense minister this summer, Thursday had made it quite clear that Lebed is unhappy, indicating when the two men met earlier in the day for the first time in months, the Security Council secretary had threatened to resign.

Chernomyrdin's press secretary Victor Konnov told Reuters that Lebed possibly forgot the council was convening earlier in the afternoon than had originally been scheduled.

The Security Council press service, however, said bluntly that Lebed was too busy to show up.

"He is still working on important documents that were signed [Thursday] night with the Chechen delegation," a spokeswoman said, referring to a deal signed with Chechen leader Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev.

"Of course he knew about the session, but you can hardly call this a snub to the prime minister," she said.

Even without Lebed, Friday's Defense Council meeting lasted a long and raucous three hours, during which the military brass said army morale was dangerously low because of underfunding, while the government answered that the army was much too bureaucratic and unwieldy, Russian media reported.

"Participants reached the conclusion that serious reorganization of the armed forces was needed which would take into consideration both the military and political state of the country and the real economic conditions," Interfax said.

Izvestia reported in its Saturday edition that the Defense Council decided to "drastically reduce" the administrative personnel of the various branches of the army.

In addition, Interfax reported that the decision to "disband units of low military readiness" was also reached.

The military has roughly 1.5 million personnel at present and the government plans to cut 300,000 of these, The Associated Press reported.

"We are looking intensively for ways to reorganize the armed forces in a way which is profitable from an economic point of view," Itar-Tass quoted Baturin as saying.

Later appearing on the '"Geroy Dnya" ("Hero of the Day") show on NTV Independent Television, Baturin denied army officers were on the verge of rising against their generals because they are so underpaid -- a warning issued by Lebed last weekend.

"The army is the army, and there will be no mutiny unless it is especially prepared," Baturin said.

While failing to disclose particulars of what was discussed in the session, Baturin did say he was concerned that mass army layoffs could hurt Russia's future defense capabilities.

"We could lose a great many army officers and generals, and that of course, could effect military preparedness and the country's ability to defend itself," Baturin said in the interview.

He said the decisions of who will be dismissed first will come "after we evaluate the organization of our military."