Russian president replaces military chief

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on Tuesday replaced the armed forces’ chief of general staff, General Yuri Baluyevsky, who had clashed with the defense minister, a former tax official with no military background.

Baluyevsky’s post was a powerful one in the state hierarchy — besides the president and defense minister, he was the third man holding the secret codes for the “nuclear briefcase”, which controls Russia’s formidable nuclear arsenal.

Medvedev announced that Baluyevsky was to be replaced by General Nikolai Makarov, a First Deputy Defence Minister, during a televised meeting with Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov.

The president said Baluyevsky would become deputy head of the country’s Security Council.

“I received the proposal from the defense minister to appoint his new first deputy as head of the General Staff,” Medvedev said. “I’ve studied these proposals and I support them.”

Makarov, 58, has commanded units throughout Russia and the former Soviet Union, rising from platoon head to army commander, but he is little known to the public.

He did not serve in Chechnya, where the Russian army has fought two wars since 1994 against mainly Muslim rebels and many hitherto unknown generals have risen swiftly to prominence.

The Kremlin had formal grounds to dismiss Baluyevsky, who is 61, because all Russian military chiefs turning 60 must be endorsed by the president to keep their posts.

But there were political overtones in Baluyevsky’s case, analysts and media said.

In March, Russian media reported Baluyevsky had offered his resignation because of proposed staff cuts and in protest at Serdyukov’s appointment as defense minister. Serdyukov is a former tax official with no military experience.

“Baluyevsky merely expressed the opinion of a vast majority of Russia’s military, viewing this civilian as being completely alien to the army,” political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky told Reuters.

Serdyukov, appointed defense minister by then President Vladimir Putin in February 2007, tendered his resignation on ethical grounds last autumn after his father-in-law became prime minister. Putin rejected the resignation.

Putin, now a powerful prime minister who heads the de facto United Russia party, sought to make Russia more assertive on the world stage after the chaos of the early post-Soviet years.

He boosted military spending and attempted to raise army morale. But his critics say military reform, aimed at creating a professional, well-equipped and mobile army, has been too slow.

“Now it’s obvious Serdyukov will remain defense minister indefinitely,” Belkovsky said.

Discontent among poorly paid soldiers and the generals’ dissatisfaction with the state of the army will not now pose any political problems for the Kremlin, he said.

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