Young Russian General Pushes Long-Awaited Changes

ABOVE a band of service ribbons, Gen. Pavel Grachev proudly wears the medal marking him as a Hero of the Soviet Union, the highest award bestowed by the Soviet Army. The 44-year-old paratroop commander won the honor battling the mujahideen guerrillas in the mountains of Afghanistan.

General Grachev's career, rising through the ranks of the elite airborne troops since 1965, has earned him the reputation as "a soldier's soldier," as one Western military attache puts it.

But Grachev's appointment by Russian President Boris Yeltsin to the politically powerful position as the first Russian Defense Minister is in large part in recognition of the key role he played in thwarting the attempted, hard-line communist coup last August. The then-commander of the airborne troops refused an order from Soviet Defense Minister Marshal Dmitri Yazov to dispatch his forces against Mr. Yeltsin.

There are whispers that Grachev's attitude was more ambiguous, that he was an initial backer of the coup. But his ultimate act of loyalty gained him the backing of Yeltsin and key aides. When Yeltsin was ready to name a defense minister (he had filled the role himself as an interim appointment since early April), the choice was largely between Grachev and Air Marshal Yevgeny Shaposhnikov, the air force commander who also opposed the coup and was named head of the joint armed forces of the Commonwealth of

Independent States.

"Grachev is a brave man," comments defense expert Sergei Blagovolin on the choice. "He doesn't have a broad vision, but he knows the real feelings of common officers well, he knows the reality of their living standards, the social problems of the soldiers. From this point of view, he is acceptable to Yeltsin."

The choice may also have been influenced by Grachev's reputation as a man uninterested in politics. "Grachev seems to be an honest military man, very far from political games," Mr. Blagovolin says. "But he has a lot of ambition - maybe not as a political leader but as a person who can influence the decisionmaking process in this country."

Indeed, Grachev has emerged with a fairly strong program to reform the former Soviet military. Military reform has long been on the agenda here but little progress was made during the era of Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. Some reform advocates pushed for Yeltsin to name a civilian minister, establishing civilian control over the military.

But Yeltsin's choice of Grachev reflects what many analysts say is his desire to avoid confrontation with the military during a difficult period of change both in the armed forces and society. Grachev himself endorses that view.

"A civilian cannot be defense minister during this transition period because the commanders and the troops would not accept a civilian," the general told a press conference.

In a later newspaper interview, Grachev said he did not oppose a civilian minister in principle but "it is possible ... in some other time when a solid military organization has been created and is functioning."

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