Can Russia stay the course without Lebed?

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 October, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 October, 1996, 12:00am

There are two interpretations as to how Russian President Boris Yeltsin finally came to sack his National Security chief, Alexander Lebed, last week. The first is that, despite being weakened by heart disease, Mr Yeltsin is not so enfeebled that he cannot fire the one man strong enough to challenge his leadership. Alternatively, his enfeeblement is such that Mr Lebed's many enemies have been able to manipulate the President into getting rid of a man they feared more than the opposition. Given Mr Yeltsin's record of turning on former allies, the chances are that the decision was his own.

Either way, it is clear the Russian people's enthusiasm for Mr Lebed is not shared either by those in power or by opposition parties who publicly backed his dismissal. Mr Lebed's main achievement was to have stopped the fighting in the breakaway province of Chechnya. For that he is a hero with Russians sickened by the pointless deaths of so many soldiers in an unwinable war. To his enemies, this makes Mr Lebed a traitor who has humiliated the army and virtually promised the Chechens eventual independence.

The effect of Mr Lebed's dismissal need not be a renewed outbreak of war in the province. Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and the President's Chief of Staff, Anatoly Chubais, know that more Russian deaths in Chechnya could all too easily propel Mr Lebed back into power on a surge of popular anger. Hence the Kremlin's gesture of retaining him as Mr Yeltsin's representative in Chechnya.

But Mr Lebed has too many enemies to hold that position for long. If he falls, there is a real danger of a resurgence of violence and with it the deaths of more soldiers, rebel fighters and Chechen civilians. To those Mr Lebed describes as the Party of War, that would be a small price to pay. The alternative, as they see it, would be to send a signal to other minority peoples chafing under the Russian yoke that Moscow no longer has the stomach for a fight.

This may well be true. Mr Lebed's opportunistic flirting with the extreme nationalists of the far right and left of Russian politics does not seem to have convinced him that the preservation of the Russian Federation's present borders - let alone the reconquest of the former Soviet Union - is worth pursuing at any price. A canny populist, Mr Lebed has sensed the public mood, and probably the mood of much of the army, in a way that the remote power elite in the Kremlin and the former Communist apparatchiks who dominate parliament clearly have not. Many Russians might accept the loss of troublesome regions on the fringes of the empire for the sake of peace.

Mr Lebed understood how the army would be demoralised by a continuing brutal winter campaign in the freezing Caucasus. He also grasped the need for military reform and reorganisation - and he is probably the only man who could carry that off without alienating the entire military establishment.

But Mr Lebed's unpopularity with the politicians and the military top-brass is probably justified. He is not unique in being ambitious, although it is his hunger for power which appears to have upset Mr Yeltsin and his entourage the most. Nor is he uniquely arrogant. Mr Yeltsin is rarely visited by any false modesty either and has never made any secret of his own lust for power. But in the weeks since Mr Lebed has been strutting around Moscow as if he already ran the country, his political inexperience has at times been as painfully apparent as his empty demagoguery.

His politics are inconsistent and incoherent. He has courted the far right and repeated the traditional Russian anti-Semitic and anti-Asiatic propaganda. He has openly called for Mr Yeltsin to hand over power at least until he returns to health; and he has failed to build either a power-base outside the army or win friends and influence people within the political establishment. Mr Lebed is widely seen as a loner and a dangerously loose canon.

The big danger, in some eyes, is that Mr Lebed might now lead a military coup. That would hardly endear him to the average Russian. The general has said he intends to return to power by peaceful means; the public support he obviously enjoys may lead him to hope he has a chance of doing so soon, particularly if Mr Yeltsin's health deteriorates further.

It is too early to write Mr Lebed off as a political player in Russia. But it is also too early to assume his departure will precipitate either a return to war or a disastrous slide into political chaos under a weakened President surrounded by plotting aides. There are clever operators in the Yeltsin camp. The country may well stay the political course without Mr Lebed.