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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lebed Ally Picked As Defense Chief

In a clear nod toward national security tsar Alexander Lebed, President Boris Yeltsin on Wednesday named Colonel General Igor Rodionov to be Russia's new defense minister.

Rodionov, 59, previously head of the General Staff Military Academy, was strongly backed by Lebed to replace General Pavel Grachev, who was sacked as defense minister last month. Lebed has described Rodionov, with whom he had served in the Soviet army in Georgia in the late 1980s, as "a brilliant general, a worthy and valiant man."

In the Kremlin tug-of-war, Rodionov's appointment seemed to signal a victory for Lebed against Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, who was reported to have wanted another candidate for the post.

Prior to becoming head of the General Staff Military Academy, Rodionov was commander of Soviet forces in the Transcaucasian Military District. In April 1989, he was in charge of an operation to disperse nationalist protesters in Tbilisi, Georgia. Nineteen were killed and hundreds wounded when troops attacked demonstrators with sharpened shovels, clubs and poisonous chemicals.

Later that year, a Soviet parliamentary commission headed by Anatoly Sobchak named Rodionov as one of three generals responsible for the tragedy.

Rodionov served in Afghanistan in the mid-1980s, commanding the 40th Army. In 1995, he joined with fellow Afghan vet Lebed in founding the "Chest i Rodina," or Honor and Motherland, social-political movement, made up of military veterans, in an unsuccessful move to consolidate the military vote behind Lebed's political party, the Congress of Russian Communities.

Rodionov's appointment received praise from politicians across Russia's political spectrum, including State Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznyov and Duma Security Committee Chairman Viktor Ilyukhin, both of the Communist Party faction, Interfax reported.

Colonel General Eduard Vorobyov, who is deputy chairman of the Duma's defense committee and a member of the liberal Russia's Democratic Choice party, called Rodionov "a highly skilled professional" who is "capable of implementing military reform," but added that he was waiting for a defense minister who would move to end the war in Chechnya.

Alexei Arbatov of the Yabloko faction, also a deputy chairman of the defense committee, said there were better choices for the post than Rodionov, such as Federal Border Guard Service Director Andrei Nikolayev, who was said to be the prime minister's choice for the post.

Some observers said that while Rodionov's appointment has strengthened Lebed's position within the government, the two generals will be kept in check by Prime Minister Chernomyrdin and the former privatization chief Anatoly Chubais, whom Yeltsin named Monday presidential chief of staff and top aide. of the Moscow center of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "I think the nomination of Rodionov could be interpreted as carving out a niche for Lebed which will certainly include the more traditional aspects of national security, while things like the national economy will not be put under his purview."

Rodionov has outlined his concept of military reform in articles published in the Russian press. His vision of a leaner, meaner, professional armed forces with a more limited mission than the Soviet military is similar to Lebed's ideas on the subject.

Alexander Zhilin, national security correspondent for Moskovskiye Novosti, said Rodionov's most important task will be to reverse the "criminalization" of the armed forces by cleaning out corrupt senior officers.

"As far as I know, Security Council Secretary Lebed insisted on the candidacy of Igor Rodionov because Rodionov is a person unstained by corruption," said Zhilin. "And believe me, it is very hard these days to find an unstained general in the highest echelons of the Russian Army."

Rodionov's appointment follows corruption charges against top generals by State Duma deputy Lev Rokhlin, an ally of Rodionov. Among those Rokhlin named was General Konstantin Kobets, who was a Grachev deputy and reportedly a candidate for the top military post. Rokhlin said that the main purpose of his corruption report was to prevent Kobets from becoming defense minister.

Rodionov's part in the 1989 Tbilisi events has been glossed over by many analysts. Some said that those who organized the demonstrations, led by militant Georgian nationalist Zviad Gamsakhurdia, were also responsible for the bloodshed.

"Gamsakhurdia played a real role in aggravating that crisis," said Pavel Kandel of the Institute of Europe.

Others said the lion's share of the blame lay higher up.

"The person who bore the most responsibility for the violence was exempt from the criticism he deserved -- the commander in chief at the time," said Trenin.

On Russian Television's "Moment of Truth" program Tuesday, perestroika architect Alexander Yakovlev said former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev was responsible for the Tbilisi violence.

Yet critics of the war in Chechnya feared that Rodionov, like Lebed, whose campaign platform called for an end to the conflict, will turn out to be a hawk.

"I'm not very optimistic: It would be a great surprise for me if he sacked [Vyacheslav] Tikhomirov," commander of the Russian forces in Chechnya, said Piontkowsky. "I'm afraid that Lebed, Rodionov and Tikhomirov will have the same line."

Rodionov said Wednesday that his first priority will be to concentrate on "hot spots," including Chechnya, Tajikistan and Bosnia, Itar-Tass reported.