President Boris Yeltsin filled a month-long vacuum at the head of the Russian military yesterday, naming reform-minded Gen. Igor Rodionov as the new defense minister.
The appointment was seen as a feather in the cap of Alexander Lebed, Mr. Yeltsin's new security supremo, who had been energetically boosting General Rodionov's candidacy for several weeks, and whose influence has thus been reaffirmed.
Although some liberal voices had been raised against Rodionov, his promotion was welcomed by defense experts who hailed him as a professional soldier well placed to clean up Russia's demoralized, poorly funded, and corruption-riddled armed forces.
"He is the best man for the job," commented Pavel Felgengauer, military affairs analyst for the daily Sevodnya newspaper. "He is one of the most professional generals in the Army, well respected among the troops, and he has positive ideas about military reforms."
Rodionov is best known for having been the local Soviet military commander in Tbilisi, Georgia, in April 1989, when his troops broke up a peaceful pro-independence rally with sharpened shovels, killing at least 19 people and wounding hundreds.
That incident has earned him the enmity of some liberal figures here, although he was apparently absolved of blame by a subsequent inquiry. Since 1989 Rodionov has headed the General Staff Academy in Moscow, a post where he has developed ties with all the rising senior officers passing through his classrooms.
His reputation as an honest officer, untouched by the financial scandals that have stained the reputations of many of his colleagues, contrasts sharply with that of his predecessor, Gen. Pavel Grachev, who was fired suddenly by Yeltsin last month.
Rodionov is the first new minister to be named since Yeltsin won the presidential elections earlier this month, and Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin is still pondering the rest of his Cabinet lineup.
But the president, currently resting in a sanatorium outside Moscow, gave a hint earlier this week of the way he might lean in his second administration by naming prominent liberal Anatoly Chubais as his new chief of staff and top adviser.
Widely respected in the West for the way in which he ran Russia's privatization efforts for four years, Mr. Chubais has become a symbol of free-market economic reform. His appointment has also been welcomed as symbolic by political allies of Chubais, such as former Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar. He replaces hard-liner Nikolai Yegorov, one of the architects of the war in Chechnya.
But observers are still waiting to see who is named to the key posts of finance minister and economy minister before predicting the future course of Russian economic policy with confidence.
YELTSIN, after his election victory, said that "the reform course will continue, but economic policy requires serious corrections," pledging to revive production and boost living standards. His aides have suggested these goals may take priority over the battle against inflation - until now the government's major task.
General Lebed has been promoting Sergei Glazyev, a state-oriented economist, for a ministerial post. If Mr. Glazyev is given a Cabinet job it will indicate that Lebed's influence is very strong indeed, even outside his specific sphere of interest, which is law-and-order and security.
The defense minister's post, however, is clearly within his purview as the top official in the Kremlin responsible for security issues, and Lebed had been publicly supporting Rodionov for the job.
Although not a public figure, Rodionov has associated himself closely with Lebed's demands for sweeping military reform. "Now they will cooperate in trying to implement the ideas they have promoted" to make the Army slimmer, more efficient, and less corrupt," says Alexander Byelkin, an independent defense analyst.
Rodionov will enjoy support in this arduous task from top officers as a result of the impression he made on them during their time at the academy, Mr. Byelkin says. "He is very well respected by middle-level officers, and by one-star generals who have just graduated from the academy."
Rodionov has expressed no opinion publicly on the war in Chechnya, which has enmeshed the Russian Army in an unpopular, poorly conducted, and brutal campaign. But observers note that Lebed, who argued strongly against the war while he was a presidential candidate, has now come around to the government's position. Rodionov is not expected to differ.