MOSCOW -- President Boris N. Yeltsin fired three hard-line members of his administration yesterday after a power struggle in which Kremlin liberals accused the hard-liners of preparing a coup to stop a runoff presidential election.
The Kremlin intrigue left Gen. Alexander I. Lebed, the newly appointed national security chief, as possibly the second most powerful person in Russia.
Yeltsin dismissed Alexander Korzhakov, his secretive personal security chief and longtime confidant; Mikhail Barsukov, head of the Federal Security Service, successor to the KGB; and Oleg Soskovets, a first deputy prime minister tied to the old military-industrial complex who has tried to slow economic reforms.
Anatoly Chubais, a top Yeltsin campaign aide, said the three had plotted to cancel the runoff election and to control Yeltsin from behind the scenes.
They feared they would lose their jobs whether Yeltsin won or lost.
But the plot was foiled by Yeltsin and other top officials, he said.
"There will be no coup in Russia. There will be an election in Russia," Chubais told a packed news conference, where he was applauded by Russian reporters who hugged each other in glee over the firings.
"I am profoundly convinced that the victor in the July 3 elections will be not just President Yeltsin, but a new Yeltsin with a new team, with a renovated team capable of leading Russia to the year 2000."
Korzhakov, who created an uproar in May when he suggested that the presidential elections be called off, denied in an interview with the Interfax news agency the allegations of a plot or internal coup.
Political observers were trying to determine where political theater ended and reality began.
The firings are likely to be popular and draw lots of voter support.
But the late-night events that led to the firings are murky affairs involving the arrest of two campaign workers who were detained for allegedly smuggling a half-million U.S. dollars out of government headquarters.
Chubais claimed that the arrest was a pretext for Korzhakov and his allies to cancel elections.
Chubais described months of division between liberal reformers who believed Yeltsin could win re-election and hard-liners who wanted to keep power by force.
The hard-liners feared they would lose power to rival reformers if Yeltsin won, he said.
"This is the last stage of a long and hard struggle between the part of the Yeltsin administration that worked for Yeltsin's victory in a democratic election and the part of the Yeltsin administration that preferred use of force," he said.
Purge began Tuesday
The purge of the unpopular hard-liners began with the firing Tuesday of Defense Minister Pavel S. Grachev and came two weeks before Yeltsin faces Communist Gennady A. Zyuganov in a runoff election.
"They were taking too much out and giving back too little," Yeltsin said of the dismissed officials.
Lebed had demanded the dismissal of his old rival Grachev as the price of his joining Yeltsin and helping him defeat the Communists in the runoff.
But Lebed's law-and-order nationalism was considered a direct threat to the Kremlin hard-liners.
Lebed's comments throughout the day suggested that the Kremlin has skirted "mutiny" and "chaos."
"Any revolt will be suppressed, and in an extremely tough way," said Lebed, who finished an impressively strong third in this week's presidential election.
"Those who want to plunge the country into the depths of bloody chaos do not deserve pity."
One Western diplomat observed, "It's not so much that this was a potential coup to eliminate Yeltsin as it is a bitter behind-the-scenes struggle of two camps.
"The Chubais and [Prime Minister Viktor S.] Chernomyrdin camp appears to have better skills and bargaining power right now."
He cautioned that the hard-liners -- particularly Korzhakov, who has been considered Yeltsin's closest adviser -- are not necessarily out of the picture.
Indeed, Korzhakov said after his firing that he would remain loyal to the Russian leader.
"I have backed the president and I will continue to back the president," he said.
"I am not leaving the presidential team and will do everything to ensure Boris Yeltsin's victory in the presidential election."
Early TV bulletin
Muscovites were jolted out of bed about 2 a.m. yesterday as word spread that independent commercial television NTV had broken into programming with a bulletin that Korzhakov and Barsukov had ordered the arrests of two of Yeltsin's campaign aides.
The station -- run by one of Yeltsin's top campaign aides -- called the arrests a sign of an attempted coup d'etat.
Observers suggested that Chubais and Igor Maleshenko, president of NTV and a liberal Yeltsin campaign aide, may have overreacted to what may have been a routine detention of the men.
Chernomyrdin said the two aides were detained as they left government headquarters with a large sum of foreign currency and until it was established that they were entitled to the money.
There was no explanation of the intended use of the cash.
Hard-liners out of the Kremlin
Head of personal security: Korzhakov, 46, a former KGB agent, became Yeltsin's body-guard in 1985
State security chief: Barsukov, 48, was named chief of the Federal Security Service, successor to the KGB, in 1995.
Deputy prime minister: Soskovets, 47, was named a first deputy prime minister in january 1994.
Pub Date: 6/21/96