MOSCOW -- The bitter controversy over the murder two weeks ago of investigative reporter Dmitry Kholodov has refused to die down, and step by step the government has had to back away from its insistence that his accusations of corruption in the army are groundless.
Yesterday, President Boris N. Yeltsin fired Gen. Matvei Burlakov, the deputy defense minister who had been the murdered journalist's main target, declaring in a decree that he was acting "to protect the honor of the Russian armed forces."
General Burlakov had been in the Defense Ministry only since August. Before that, he was commander of the army's Western Group, formerly based in Germany.
There, according to Mr. Kholodov and now others, General Burlakov oversaw a comprehensively corrupt operation that by one estimate has cost Russia more than $60 million.
Western Group leaders allegedly sold arms and equipment on hand in Germany and used military transports to ship in additional materiel from Russia, which they also illegally sold.
Mr. Kholodov, a 27-year-old reporter for Moskovsky Komsomolets who was scheduled to testify about his findings before the Duma, the lower house of Russia's parliament, was killed by a briefcase bomb in his office Oct. 17.
His murder has galvanized a nation jaded by criminal violence, and its reverberations have shaken the Russian government.
Defense Minister Pavel Grachev felt obliged to deny that he had ordered Mr. Kholodov's slaying. He declared that not a single incidence of corruption had been uncovered in the Western Group, and then, days after the murder, said that he himself was the principal victim of the reporter's killing, calling it a "political" attack aimed at him.
On Oct. 27, while on a visit to Russia's Far East, Mr. Grachev suggested that the bombing could have been the work of foreign intelligence agencies seeking to undermine Russian might.
Statements such as these have been met with considerable scorn.
Mr. Grachev's support, which was never deep, has shrunk on both the right and the left. He has been invited to testify before the Duma on the affair, an invitation that a spokesman said yesterday he would accept.
He has vowed not to resign his post as long as he has the president's trust, but that decision ultimately lies with Mr. Yeltsin.
The biggest blow to the government in the case so far came from Yuri Boldyrev, who was Mr. Yeltsin's chief corruption fighter until he was fired a year ago.
Mr. Boldyrev said last week that he had sent a report to Mr. Yeltsin in November 1992, detailing high-level abuse and corruption within the Western Group, and naming, among others, General Burlakov.
The acting prosecutor-general, Alexei Ilyushenko, offered a lTC tortured defense of the army's leadership last week. He told the Duma that materials in his possession "do not show that all the leadership of the Western Army Group, without exception, is involved in corruption."
At the same time, the army is turning its back on the leadership.
Gen. Alexander Lebed, the influential commander of Russian forces in Moldova and a man widely considered to have an excellent chance of becoming president someday, refused last week to allow General Burlakov to visit his command.
In Chita, in the Far East, a military court defied Mr. Grachev and reinstated air force officers who had been dismissed after a plane crash.
Discontent seethes within the army.
Even as corruption charges fly, the Defense Ministry is facing a budget gap that has caused it to call a halt to all combat training, the fall draft rounded up only 9 percent of eligible recruits, the officer corps is understaffed by 15 percent, pay is generally late and more than 45,000 officers' families are without housing.
Mr. Ilyushenko met yesterday with the investigators in Mr. Kholodov's murder, representing the prosecutor's office, the Federal Intelligence Service and the Interior Ministry.
No charges have been filed in the case, but a statement released by Mr. Ilyushenko's office said that "a purposeful investigation is taking place," and it promised that "additional measures" had been decided upon.
But whether those measures will be sufficient to erase the Yeltsin government's do-nothing image regarding corruption seems very much in doubt.
World chess champion Garry Kasparov said at Mr. Kholodov's funeral that the event had become a symbolic one.
Just as thousands of Russia's elite turned out for the funeral of dissident Andrei Sakharov in 1989 as a means of showing that they were burying the regime of Mikhail S. Gorbachev, he said, so too the thousands who came to mourn Mr. Kholodov 12 days ago, in the same hall, were there to bury Mr. Yeltsin.