Former KGB men in control as Yeltsin sends heads rolling


President Yeltsin's three-hour storm through the Kremlin in which a dozen officials were sacked for questioning his health ended with his immediate return to hospital. The strange turn of events raised many eyebrows and more than a few laughs but the main results of that bizarre episode have been far more serious. The key roles in post-communist Russia now lie firmly in the hands of the former KGB.

Mr Yeltsin's frequent illnesses have in the past allowed members of his entourage to take control of vital aspects of Russia's administration without having been elected to do so. Previously politicians such as former prime minister Mr Viktor Chernomyrdin and the former deputy prime minister, Mr Anatoly Chubais, have used their influence behind the scenes as the ailing President's concentration failed.

These men are now out of favour. Both have, incidentally, been fingered by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the United States as involved in serious personal corruption. The Clinton administration chose to ignore the CIA's warnings in this respect.

Mr Yeltsin's sweep through the Kremlin yesterday claimed as his chief victim the head of the Kremlin administration, Mr Valentin Yumashev, a former family friend.

Mr Yumashev's crime, and that of the others involved in the purge, appears to have been that they believed the President's health to be so weak that his credibility had been seriously diminished. The President's return to hospital immediately after the sackings may or may not have borne out these views.

But more important than the sackings have been the replacements to the jobs of those who have been dismissed. Mr Yumashev's job as head of the Presidential Administration has gone to Gen Nikolai Bordyuzha, a former Colonel-General in the KGB, who, until now, has been secretary of the Russian Security Council.

The conflation of these two extra-constitutional posts gives Gen Bordyuzha a complex of powers which had previously been divided amongst a number of Kremlin officials.

The main power structures in Russia have developed constitutionally and extra-constitutionally since the Soviet Union was dismantled in 1991. Constitutionally the main power structures have been that of the president of the Russian Federation and of the prime minister.

Outside the constitution the main posts have been those of the secretary of the Security Council and those of head of the presidential administration. These have now been put in the hands of Gen Bordyuzha. This concentration of powers, almost it appears by accident, would have been unthinkable until now.

On the constitutional side of the equation the President's health puts his powers very much in question. This structure indicates that Gen Bordyuzha has, at least until the next purge, the ability to act on the President's behalf. The other constitutional leader, apart from the President, is the Prime Minister, Mr Yevgeny Primakov. By coincidence Mr Primakov is Gen Bordyuzha's former boss.

Mr Primakov is a former head of the KGB and before that acted as a "journalist" in the Middle East where he was given the onerous task of writing one article per month. To his credit, however, his intervention in Iraq has allowed UN Secretary General Mr Kofi Annan prevent a second Gulf war. Now, however, whether Mr Yeltsin realises it or not, former KGB agents hold almost all the reins of power in Russia. There is even evidence that the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, His Holiness Alexei II, Patriarch of Moscow and all the Russias, was once a KGB operative known as "Agent Drozdov" - "The Thrush."

In an odd coincidence, the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian Parliament, has voted in the past week to reinstate the massive statue of Feliks Dzerzhinsky in the centre of Lyubanskaya Square in Moscow.

Dzerzhinsky, a Polish aristocrat-cum-communist, founded the KGB's predecessor, the Cheka. Duma deputies in their speeches indicated their belief that the return of the statue would convey a strong message to the Moscow underworld that its time is up. Perhaps it is.