WHILE Americans watched Colin Powell come close to bidding for the presidency and then draw back, Russians were watching a former general of their own position himself as the most likely candidate to succeed Boris Yeltsin next year. And unlike General Powell, the charismatic Alexander Lebed seems to have no reverse gear.
The 15 percent Mr. Lebed garners in polls may not sound like much, but it puts him squarely in the lead. In a one-on-one race against Mr. Yeltsin's prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, he would take 31 percent versus Mr. Chernomyrdin's 23 percent. Even the Communists' popular candidate, Gennady Zyuganov, hints that he would be comfortable serving as prime minister in a coalition government should Lebed gain the presidency in next June's balloting.
If electoral success hinges on the clarity and brevity of a candidate's message, Lebed is a winner. The Russian press, friend and foe alike, agree that he speaks directly to Russia's wounded pride. He supports the cause of the Russian ''colonials'' now living outside Russia in the newly independent states; he considers the collapse of the USSR a disaster and would like to renew the old links between Moscow and its neighbors; he warns the expansion of NATO could lead to World War III; he wants the government to regulate the economy more closely; and, above all, he would declare war on crime and corruption.
No image problem here! Lebed is the candidate of Russian patriotism, law, and order.
All this could spell trouble for the United States and Western Europe. A Lebed presidency could put at risk the two-year-old agreement on conventional weapons in Europe. It could force NATO to close ranks and rearm, at great cost to the US budget. Russian fears of foreign economic domination could lead to protectionist tariffs and taxes that would threaten billions in Western investments. And human rights violations by a zealous Lebed government could create the ''Cold Peace'' Yeltsin has warned of.
Is Lebed what he seems?
Whether or not events take this gloomy course will depend on Lebed himself. Is he really what he seems? Are we reading him right? Certainly much of his record lends support to grim prognostications. The 44-year-old Lebed was the USSR's hatchet man for several of the worst acts of repression directed against restive non-Russian republics. A tough ''special assignment'' unit under his command resorted to chemical weapons and shovels to kill dozens of demonstrators in Tbilisi, Georgia, in 1988. In 1990, he carried out a Chechnya-like operation against Azerbaijanis seeking independence from Moscow. After being promoted to lead the 14th Army in Moldova, Lebed did everything in his power to undermine the new government there, often acting in defiance of his superiors in the Kremlin. He now claims he was really trying to prevent corrupt officers from selling off weapons to Middle Eastern terrorists. Later, when Yeltsin confronted a mutinous parliament, he sided with the president. But as he watched the once-proud Soviet Army collapse around him, Lebed became a bitter critic of Yeltsin's new Russia.
If this were the whole picture, the best course for the US would be to distance itself from Lebed and prepare for the worst. But it is not the whole picture. Part of Lebed's appeal is that he is not a career politician. From the podium he often shoots from the hip. Yet he has also shown he is self-confident enough to revise his views in the face of evidence.
Take, for example, the Soviet operations in Georgia and Azerbaijan that he commanded. By March of this year he had concluded that these were both costly mistakes. ''Everything we tried to hold onto by force was lost,'' he rued. Lebed has also denounced Soviet intervention against Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1967, and Lithuania in 1991, not to mention Russia's ongoing military assault on Chechnya, which he has criticized in no uncertain terms. One reason that then-Minister of Defense Boris Gromov sacked Lebed this spring was that he refused an order to lead Russian forces intervening in Tajikistan's civil war. ''Why should a Russian general help one group of Tajiks kill another group of Tajiks?'' he asked. Why indeed?
Lebed has also sharply criticized Soviet rule in Central Europe. He considers the fall of the Berlin Wall to have been an ''act of common sense.''
For all his Russia-first swagger, Lebed states that he is categorically opposed to the use of force in reassembling the former lands of the USSR. Indeed, he would cut the Army's size and make it more professional, thus abandoning the cherished Soviet ideal of a mass army.
Lebed dreams of building a voluntary confederation by means of which Moscow would gradually reestablish its regional leadership. While this, too, presents serious problems to the sovereignty of the new states, especially Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakstan, it does not differ greatly from the program long since advocated by Alexander Solzhenitsyn and what is already being pursued by the Yeltsin government, for that matter.
That Lebed would impose tough measures against crime and Russia's ''mafias'' goes without saying. He also belongs squarely in the camp of those Russians most outraged by MPV, the new Russian edition of Playboy, and the home-grown smut magazine SPIB-Info, which boasts a million subscribers.
On these campaigns Lebed is to be faulted less for the ends he pursues than for waffling over the means he would employ. One day he sounds merely like a tough cop; the next day he comes across like Pinochet at his worst. Lebed quickly grows impatient with the give and take of democracy, which endears him to those who think Russia needs a ''strong hand'' but sends chills up the spine of Russia's freshly minted democrats.
An educational deficit
Yuri Skokov, leader of Lebed's party, the Congress of Russian Communities (KRO), has every reason to cheer his popular standard bearer. Yet last summer he was quoted in the Russian press as saying that Lebed ''does not have enough education.'' This is particularly true in economics, a subject on which the usually voluble former officer is conspicuously silent. Beyond ritual attacks on Yeltsin's ''shock therapy'' and on a privatization process that enriched thousands of totally unworthy Soviet managers, he offers few specifics.
When Yeltsin named Chernomyrdin prime minister, Western observers were quick to write off reform in Russia. After all, how could the manager of one of the USSR's biggest state monopolies support privatization? Yet Chernomyrdin proved a quick study and reform went forward. Besides his own intelligence, he benefited from extensive contact with businesspeople and political leaders from the major industrial democracies, including the United States.
Lebed is already being written off by many in the West as a chauvinistic blowhard with a macho past and dangerous intentions in the present. But he has had the guts to rethink his position on many issues. Moreover, he is bright. He is a far cry from Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the populist buffoon who championed the cause of Russia's wounded pride in last year's Duma elections.
Russian leaders face new situations daily. They must feel their way, learning as they go. Inevitably, their views evolve as they confront the challenge of leadership. Lebed wants to be a strong leader and knows that this requires that he be well informed. Contact with Western business leaders, journalists, politicians, and civic activists can and should be an important part of that learning process.
In his day, Ronald Reagan reached out to an unknown Mikhail Gorbachev, George Bush made contact with Yeltsin, and now Al Gore meets regularly with Chernomyrdin. Scores of American businesspeople and civic leaders have done the same. Such contact should not be withheld from Alexander Lebed, the candidate most likely to succeed Yeltsin as Russia's president.