Top General Takes a Hit In Yeltsin's Graft War

President Boris Yeltsin, putting muscle behind his recent anti-corruption drive, fired a top general and one-time close confidant after accusations of bribery, his spokesman said Tuesday.


Kremlin press secretary Sergei Yastrzhembsky said the president was "indignant" upon hearing that General Konstantin Kobets, a deputy defense minister, had been charged by military prosecutors last week with bribe-taking and embezzlement. Kobets, who has denied the allegations, was relieved of his duties and dismissed from the military by presidential decree.


Also Tuesday, Yastrzhembsky announced Yeltsin had ordered a halt to a reorganization of Russia's paratroop forces that had aroused opposition among the military brass, and that the president would chair a meeting Thursday of the national Defense Council.


Kobets, now hospitalized with a reported case of high blood pressure, had been a loyal ally of Yeltsin, although corruption charges had swirled around him for some time. In 1991, he led the defense of the White House building during the attempted coup by hardliners, and in 1993 he reportedly helped Yeltsin persuade the military to intervene on his side in the violent confrontation with parliament.


"Many considered him as sort of a presidential eye in the Defense Ministry because of his background," said Mikhail Gerasev, defense analyst at the USA/Canada Institute in Moscow.


The dismissal of such an old ally comes in the wake of an anti-corruption offensive. Yeltsin ordered top state officials to declare their incomes last Friday, and his ministers have promised Asked for Yeltsin's reaction to the implication of former allies in scandals, Yastrzhembsky said only: "It's hard for me to speak globally. As for General Kobets, the president reacted to the facts that came to his knowledge with indignation."


Allegations of corruption have been widespread in the ailing Russian military, with many top generals accused of embezzling millions of dollars from the state while underfed soldiers go months without wages.


The charges against Kobets center on a $241,000 payment prosecutors say he took from a construction company in exchange for a military housing contract, according to The Associated Press. He also is accused of abuse of office.


Kobets has denied any wrongdoing and maintained the apartment deal was a commercial blunder, The Associated Press reported.


Defense analyst Gerasev said the allegations against the deputy defense minister have been circulating for some time, and the timing of the dismissal could be linked to the need to find prominent victims in the anti-corruption campaign. He said there is "no clear evidence so far" that Kobets is guilty.


The Kremlin announced no replacement for Kobets, who served as chief military inspector.


Gerasev said his dismissal would have little effect on the Defense Ministry because his status as a presidential favorite already made him a "separate figure," out of the decision-making loop.


Former general Alexander Lebed, who railed against high-level corruption during his brief spell as the president's national security adviser, praised Yeltsin's decision to sack Kobets, saying at a news conference Tuesday that "one of the old rogues of our army has been ousted."


Lebed also said Yeltsin's suspension of the cutbacks in the paratroop divisions -- which Lebed once commanded -- was an act of "common sense," Interfax reported.


"Military reform must not begin with the destruction of the most capable military units," Lebed was quoted as saying.


"The airborne troops must remain and become the foundation of the country's mobile forces," he said.


Under the suspended changes, the paratroopers were to lose their independent command status and be placed under the jurisdiction of the ground forces, according to Agence France Presse. Their numbers were to be cut from 46,000 to 34,000 by June.


Yastrzhembsky cited a presidential order saying the paratroops "continue to be hastily reduced and reorganized, which will objectively decrease the role and potential of the airborne troops." Yeltsin called on Defense Minister Igor Rodionov to submit a new plan for reorganization of the units.


The status of the forces is due to be decided at Thursday's meeting of the Defense Council, a paratroop spokesman told Interfax.


The council includes the president, prime minister and national security adviser as well as top generals and the government's "power ministers" of interior, defense and intelligence.


Yastrzhembsky did not specify an agenda for the meeting, but it could be an opportunity to discuss kickstarting long-delayed reform of Russia's military to create a smaller, more professional force.


"There are a lot of things [Yeltsin] must do very quickly as far as military reform is concerned," Gerasev of the USA/Canada Institute said. "Russia's military forces right now are in a situation where this reform is imperative."