On October 17, President Boris Yeltsin
fired National Security Aide and Security Council Secretary
Alexander Lebed, denouncing him for "acting without proper
authority" and committing "errors intolerable to Russia." Yeltsin's
allies went even further: Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin
charged the controversial general with "Bonapartism," while
Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov accused him of plotting a
Lebed's dismissal was the culmination of a long and complicated
series of maneuvers initiated by Chernomyrdin and Presidential
Chief of Staff Anatoly Chubais. With Yeltsin clearly ill and in his
last term, all of the politicians around him, including Lebed, have
been engaged in a power struggle that is likely to continue.
Lebed, an outspoken retired paratroop lieutenant general,
emerged as a serious contender for the presidency by finishing
third in the first round of presidential elections held on June 16,
1996. The 11 million votes cast in his favor earned him much
acclaim -- and numerous enemies in the Kremlin. In the second round
of elections, held on July 3, Lebed grudgingly endorsed Yeltsin
(and thereby insured his victory) in exchange for being nominated
as National Security Aide to the President and Security Council
An extremely ambitious man, Lebed refused to have his authority
confined to a merely advisory role on the Security Council. Even
before taking office, he succeeded in engineering the dismissal of
his rival and former boss, Defense Minister Pavel Grachev. Lebed
then proceeded to meddle in economic affairs, an area normally
regarded as the Prime Minister's territory. He also began
advocating a new anti-corruption campaign which, had it been
implemented, would have been ruinous for the many highly placed
Russian officials who often are accused of corruption in the
Lebed succeeded in pushing for a swift settlement in Chechnya,
which made him the most popular Russian politician. At the same
time, however, he challenged the vested interests of extremely
influential forces in Russia. Interior Minister Kulikov became his
archrival after Lebed demanded his dismissal as the main culprit in
the Chechnya fiasco. Virtually the entire upper echelon of power
quickly united against Lebed.
In addition to senior government officials, the anti-Lebed
coalition came to include communists and nationalists. Lebed
contributed to the growing sentiment against him by coming out with
a series of wild accusations against his own prot'g', the popular
Defense Minister General Igor Rodionov. He also made the mistake of
allying himself with the extremely unpopular General Alexander
Korzhakov, Yeltsin's former chief bodyguard. This move infuriated
both President Yeltsin and the Russian media.
When Lebed finally was ousted, the main charge against him was
that he was preparing a coup. This accusation appears to be false.
Unlike Chernomyrdin and Chubais, Lebed has neither a nationwide
organization nor a strong bureaucratic structure standing behind
him. His actions may have been aimed at improving his standing by
creating a powerful support structure of his own. He openly
proposed creating regional branches for the Security Council, for
example, as well as a paramilitary "Russian Legion" to combat
organized crime and ethnic violence. According to Kulikov,
documents distributed by Lebed indicated that this Legion was
supposed to "detain and liquidate leaders of political groups and
movements" which threatened national security or the integrity of
the Russian state. However, such an apparatus would have taken
months to establish.
Had Lebed really planned a mutiny with the aid of his Legion, it
is highly unlikely that he would have shared his plans in advance
with the Defense and Interior Ministers or sought their consent.
However, his proposal was a useful blunder in the hands of his
rivals. Kulikov was the one to articulate the charges--with
Chernomyrdin's or possibly Yeltsin's approval. Getting Lebed out of
the way apparently was a matter of personal survival for Kulikov,
since Lebed's people reportedly have accumulated evidence of his
involvement in massive fraud and embezzlement in Chechnya.
Lebed still has high hopes for the future. Despite his
dismissal, his popularity continues to be high. He is credited with
stopping the war in Chechnya, which claimed 100,000 lives. If
hostilities resume because of pressure from Kulikov and his allies,
Lebed's rating will skyrocket.
The Russian public has always favored the political underdog.
This helped Boris Yeltsin in the late 1980s, and it is helping
Lebed now. Should Yeltsin retire or pass away in the near future,
new presidential elections will be called. If this scenario
develops, Lebed will have a good chance of succeeding Yeltsin if he
can muster enough financial and media support.
Lebed's chief opponent for the presidency would be Prime
Minister Chernomyrdin. Unlike Lebed, Chernomyrdin lacks charisma;
but he does command huge organizational and financial resources as
well as the loyalty of local political elites. Chernomyrdin could
establish a broad anti-Lebed coalition. The Prime Minister also
would be in a position to encourage media efforts to discredit
Lebed. But it is too early to tell whether these measures would be
sufficient to prevent Lebed from ascending to power.
If Yeltsin remains in power for at least two more years, Lebed's
chances of winning the presidency will diminish. Much would depend
upon his ability to establish a nationwide political movement and
secure the support of local elites and business interests.
Despite the turmoil surrounding Lebed's dismissal, Russia does
not appear to be heading for civil war. The army is politically
passive, and its support for Lebed is neither total nor
unconditional. Lebed tried to boost his popularity in the armed
forces by supporting the disappointed paratroopers against a
Defense Ministry decision to cut airborne forces. However, the top
brass moved quickly to instill discipline. General Kazantsev,
Deputy Commander of the Airborne Troops, was fired for publicly
opposing the force reduction and siding with Lebed. Lebed appears
to realize that any appeal to the army to rise in mutiny would only
provoke bloodshed and ruin his chances of achieving his ambitious
political goals peacefully.
Nevertheless, Lebed's dismissal could have a dramatic impact on
Russia's domestic and foreign policies. Most important, the peace
he worked to secure in Chechnya could be disavowed, causing
disaster for Russians and Chechens alike. Lebed's more reasonable
approach to NATO expansion and NATO-Russia cooperation also could
be renounced. In the economic arena, Chernomyrdin's government will
feel more comfortable and confident without Lebed, whose constant
support of a larger military budget and subsidies for the
military-industrial complex was a thorn in the Prime Minister's
A populist politician, Lebed could initiate a campaign focused
on saving the peace in Chechnya and denouncing government
corruption. Such an onslaught would mobilize many of his
supporters. It is therefore possible that the government might move
preemptively against him -- for example, by stepping up the
orchestrated media campaign against him, or even by bringing
During his short time in office, Lebed made many controversial
statements on domestic and foreign policy. He has shown himself to
be both unpredictable and anything but a team player. His departure
leaves the Yeltsin administration more united and consolidated, and
thus more predictable for the U.S. -- at least in the short run. To
this extent, Lebed's firing could be good news for American policy.
However, not everything Lebed stood for was inimical to U.S.
interests and values. In dealing with the Kremlin, the Clinton
Administration and the West should insist that the best features of
Lebed's legacy -- cooperation with NATO, the fight against crime
and corruption, and the end of hostilities in Chechnya -- be
continued even after his dismissal.