Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Firings End 2-Year Fight Over Power

Alexander Korzhakov appears to have made the first move in a power play aimed at protecting his influence in Wednesday night's dramatic events, but he was outwitted and outmaneuvered -- and by morning he had lost his job.

The catalyst for the whole affair was Alexander Lebed, the popular general who has been drafted into the Kremlin as security overlord to help Boris Yeltsin win next month's presidential elections. If Lebed was to be a force in the Kremlin, it would have to be at Korzhakov's expense.

But this was only the dramatic conclusion to a battle that has been going on behind the Kremlin's walls for over two years between a clique led by Korzhakov, generally re potentially embarrassing $500,000, was being called an attempted coup.

The result was the routing of the Party of War and dismissal of Korzhakov, the president's trusted aide and chief of the Presidential Security Service; Federal Security Service chief Mikhail Barsukov; and First Deputy Prime Minister Oleg Soskovets.

"This was an event no less dramatic than the attempted coup of August 1991 or Yeltsin's clash with parliament in October 1993," said Andrei Piontkowsky, political analyst at the Moscow Center for Strategic Studies.

"It was the culmination of a long struggle between one team comprising Korzhakov, Barsukov and Soskovets and on the other side [Prime Minister Viktor] Chernomyrdin, Chubais and [senior presidential aide Viktor] Ilyushin," said Sergei Markov, senior associate at the Moscow center of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace.

"And the Chubais team was very smart because they used the Lebed factor," he added.

The key figure in the drama was Korzhakov, whose links with Yeltsin go back to 1985, when the latter was appointed Moscow Communist Party Secretary by then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and Korzhakov was plucked from the KGB to act as his bodyguard.

From that time, Yeltsin placed more and more trust in his bodyguard and constant companion, rewarding his loyalty with ever more power to the point where Korzhakov was bodyguard in name only. As chief of the Kremlin bodyguard, Korzhakov commanded an armed force of as many as 40,000 men and enjoyed ministerial rank. More than that, he became Yeltsin's key adviser and the keeper of the gate to presidential influence.

And he used that position fully. In 1994 he wrote to Chernomyrdin to denounce World Bank proposals to reform Russia's oil export system, while in December 1994 his troops raided the Moscow headquarters of MOST-Bank, owner of the liberal NTV network, rifling through offices, seizing documents and holding employees at gunpoint.

After the start of the war in Chechnya in December 1995, Korzhakov became an outspoken advocate of a forceful crackdown on the breakaway republic. He secured the appointment of his protege Mikhail Barsukov as the head of the Federal Security Service, the successor to the KGB.

He aligned himself firmly with the so-called "party of war," alongside figures such as Soskovets, who controlled the metals sector and defense factories. Korzhakov and Soskovets took control of the National Sports Fund, a huge sinkhole for billions of dollars of tax revenues. By the start of 1996, when this clique engineered the sacking of Chubais from the role of deputy prime minister, it appeared that Korzhakov was calling the most of the shots in the Kremlin.

But the presidential election campaign presented Korzhakov with a dilemma. As Yeltsin improved his public image and lifted his chances for re-election, so his dependence on the security apparatus lessened and along with it Korzhakov's influence.

Even worse for Korzhakov, the improvement in Yeltsin's electoral chances was directly attributable to their sworn enemies. Previously pushed to the sidelines, Chubais and former Yeltsin chief of staff Sergei Filatov made a strong fist of the Yeltsin campaign after Korzhakov's ally Soskovets failed in the job.

The dilemma for Korzhakov was that he needed Yeltsin's victory to ensure his own future, but he wanted to avoid a situation where that victory was achieved through democratic means and the efforts of a reformist team.

This goes some way to explain Korzhakov's startling call on May 1 for the postponement of the elections to avoid social unrest and his support for proposals by Alexei Podberyozkin, a senior aide to Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, for the formation of a government of national unity, bringing together members of the current administration and the Communist-led opposition.

"Basically, he was working in collusion with Podberyozkin to transfer power to the communists, to reduce Yeltsin to a ceremonial position, a figurehead, over a government with Zyuganov as its prime minister or his nominee," Piontkowsky said.

Yeltsin publicly admonished Korzhakov for his remarks and told him to stop meddling in politics, leaving him to his official job of opening Yeltsin's car door and organizing security on his campaign tours.

But Korzhakov clung to power and hoped Yeltsin would shrink before the prospect of losing power to the communists. "If Zyuganov had had a lead of say three points, then Yeltsin might have been persuaded to agree to their calls for the cancellation of the second round," Piontkowsky said. "They needed Yeltsin to owe victory to them."

In fact, Yeltsin's lead in the first round vote last Sunday was disastrous for Korzhakov and Soskovets, forcing them to come out into the open. Drawing the battle lines, Korzhakov appeared on NTV Television to lambaste Chubais and Filatov for their handling of the campaign.

But Korzhakov's opponents found a new ally in Lebed, the retired general whose striking 14.5 percent of the popular vote suddenly gave him a huge hold over a Yeltsin clearly committed to winning a second term, posing a clear threat to the other Kremlin insiders.

When Yeltsin appointed Lebed as Security Council Secretary, with a broad mandate over what had previously been Korzhakov's domain, the position of Korzhakov's clique was faced with a fundamental challenge.

The detention on Korzhakov's orders of pro-Chubais campaign officials Sergei Lisovsky and Arkady Yevstafyev on Wednesday night, on the eve of the first meeting of the Security Council at which Yeltsin was to install Lebed, bore all the marks of an attempt to undermine Chubais and test the authority of Lebed.

It was a gamble that failed in a spectacular manner. Lebed took up the challenge, pledging early Thursday to crush any mutiny "with the utmost severity." Yeltsin, after a meeting with Chubais, sided with Lebed and the liberals, sacking Korzhakov, Barsukov and Soskovets.

"The big question is what Chubais could possibly have said to Yeltsin that finally persuaded him to get rid of this faithful dog that had served him for more than 10 years," said Markov. "I can only assume that it was the fact that Korzhakov was acting too independently."

The few remaining hawks in the Kremlin seemed very isolated Thursday, with Yeltsin's chief of staff, the former Nationalities Minister Nikolai Yegorov now looking particularly vulnerable. Another figure likely to come under scrutiny is Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov, although he has avoided close association with the party of war.