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Boris Yeltsin Defends Chechen Offensive but Cites Failures

By Sonni Efron
Los Angeles Times
MOSCOW

An unapologetic President Boris N. Yeltsin on Thursday defended Russia's use of force in Chechnya to eliminate what he called a "criminal dictatorship" as corrosive as the Medellin drug cartel. But for the first time he acknowledged that the Russian military was not up to the job.

Although Yeltsin had ordered troops into the secessionist Muslim republic over the well-publicized objections of at least five top generals - one of whom resigned rather than send untrained conscripts into combat - the Russian president blamed military unpreparedness for the casualties and human-rights violations of the 2-month-old war in Chechnya.

He promised sweeping reform of the armed forces in 1995 and hinted that a shake-up in the military leadership may be imminent.

In an annual address to Parliament, Yeltsin called for reform in almost every aspect of Russia's struggling society.

The goals for 1995 include: taming inflation, which hit 18 percent per month in January; rationalizing an oppressive tax code; establishing a legitimate judiciary, and strengthening the flimsy post-Soviet safety net for the growing ranks of the poor.

At times, Yeltsin sounded like the fiery populist who swept into office in 1991 on a wave of popular revulsion against the failing Soviet regime. The 64-year-old Siberian looked healthy and vigorous; at several points during the speech, he glared up at his audience as if daring assembled lawmakers to challenge his views.

He blasted self-serving bureaucrats who routinely violate the law. He said corrupt law-enforcement agencies had thwarted efforts to fight crime and scolded his government for failing to implement the economic agenda he had presented in last year's address to Parliament.

But Yeltsin's emphasis on strengthening state powers as a prerequisite to democratic reform displeased advocates of less - not more - government.

And much of the address seemed a painful recap of all the problems that Yeltsin promised to attack in 1994 but that remain just as intractable today.

He told the lawmakers - three of whose colleagues have been slain in the 13 months since the new Parliament was sworn in - that one measure of the effectiveness of government is its ability to fight crime. "We have made little progress in this regard," he said.

But Yeltsin said almost nothing about how he intended to put his reforms into practice. Thus, reaction was predictably skeptical, even from the dwindling ranks of his supporters.

"I would put my signature under every word of the president's address, but the issue is how these ideas and proposals are going to be implemented," said Pyotr S. Filippov, who advises the president on crime and corruption issues.

In yet another blow to Yeltsin's tarnished reformist image, the White House warned Thursday that President Clinton, in May, may not attend Moscow's long-planned commemoration of the Allied victory in World War II, if the crisis in Chechnya is not resolved soon.

For his part, Yeltsin had delayed delivering his crucial speech, originally scheduled for January, until Russia could plausibly claim the upper hand in the disastrous operation in Chechnya.

Yet even as the president spoke, the fate of a tenuous cease-fire that was announced by Russian and Chechen ground commanders a day earlier was still unclear.

"The flames of an armed mutiny have not yet been put out in the Chechen republic," Yeltsin said. "Russian soldiers are fulfilling their duty there in extremely difficult conditions, and people still die and suffer."

He then asked lawmakers to stand to honor their dead fellow-citizens. The silence lasted 10 seconds.

Yeltsin said his error in Chechnya had been to stand by for too long hoping that the problem would solve itself and that compromise with Chechen President Dzhokar M. Dudayev's regime was possible.

"That was a fateful mistake," Yeltsin said. "Such abscesses as the Medellin cartel in Colombia, the Golden Triangle' in Southeast Asia and the criminal dictatorship in Chechnya do not disappear by themselves. To preserve its sovereignty, independence and integrity, the state can and must use force."

But Yeltsin said the military performance there had shown that reform of the giant, unwieldy Soviet army had gone "too slowly."

Yeltsin promised a smaller, better-trained, better-armed, better-paid and more mobile army - reforms that Russian military experts have been prescribing for years and that Defense Minister Pavel S. Grachev has consistently resisted.