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YELTSIN RELYING HEAVILY ON KORZHAKOV

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Need an opposition stronghold stormed? Or a presidential decree signed? Or maybe a change in oil export policy? The man to see is President Yeltsin's bodyguard.

Former KGB agent Alexander Korzhakov is, by many accounts, one of the most powerful men in Russia. He is Yeltsin's constant companion, a shadowy denizen of the Kremlin whose influence is the subject of growing speculation.As Yeltsin has grown increasingly isolated and autocratic, he seems to have grown even closer to the man he has described as one of his only real friends. They go camping together, play tennis together, fish together.

As seen through Yeltsin's eyes, Korzhakov is a faithful knight, protecting and defending the ruler of all Russia, always ready with a plan in a pinch.

To others, however, the head of the Kremlin guard is a knave, a man of undue influence and, perhaps, dubious scruples.

"I have the impression he decides everything in the Kremlin," former federal prosecutor Alexei Kazannik has said. "Everyone knows you have to go to Gen. Korzhakov if you want a doubtful decision made or an illegal decree signed."

Korzhakov's clout is becoming increasingly evident.

In one of the most startling episodes, the government backed away this week from a World Bank-backed plan to liberalize oil export quotas after Korzhakov denounced it as "foreign inter-ven-tion."

"Who is running the country?" the influential daily Izvestia demanded on its front page afterward. "Yeltsin, (Prime Minister Viktor) Chernomyrdin or Gen. Korzhakov?"

On Dec. 2, a team of Korzhakov's heavily armed commandos clad in ski masks and camouflage surrounded the head-quarters of an influential banker allied to one of Yeltsin's political competitors. Several bank guards were badly beaten.

Korzhakov, who commands a small army answerable only to the president, is said to have one overriding goal: Yeltsin's job security, either through re-election or postponement of the 1996 elections.

Yeltsin wrote glowingly of his bodyguard in his recently published memoirs.

"He is a very decent, intelligent, strong and courageous person," Yeltsin wrote. "While outwardly he seems very simple, behind this simplicity is a sharp mind and a clear, excellent head."