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Lebed Is in Position To Shape Russia's Future

The former general's blend of nationalism, pro-business sentiments, and anticorruption zeal could lead to collisions with Yeltsin

Despite Boris Yeltsin's runoff victory at the polls, the political figure to watch in Russia is Alexander Lebed. This blunt-talking, grim-faced former Soviet general is now Russia's second-most-powerful politician.

Mr. Lebed's strong showing in the first round of voting (nearly 15 percent), and his subsequent elevation to the top security position in the current administration, put him in line to be the successor of President Yeltsin, who is known to have health problems.

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Asked why he threw his support behind Yeltsin, whom he often criticized, Lebed described communism - the politics of Yeltsin-challenger Gennady Zyuganov - as an old idea that has cost millions of Russian lives. In contrast, Lebed said, "I support the idea by which the whole world lives," meaning the free-market economy.

Two generations of Lebed's family suffered under communism. His father died penniless in the purges. Lebed told CNN in Moscow, "I want to leave a great wealthy country to my children."

Lebed played a leading role during the infamous coup of 1991. As commander of the Soviet airborne troops, he was ordered by the coup-plotting defense minister to turn his troops on the headquarters of the Russian Republic. Lebed chose to defend it instead. His division parked around the building, turned around, and prevented the plotters from firing at Yeltsin's headquarters. His tanks became part of the barricades protecting the building. Lebed derailed the plot and earned the title "savior of Russia."

Lebed was in the news again in 1992, when he led Russia's 14th Army into the newly independent republic of Moldova, presumably to defend ethnic Russians. Lebed's troops halted a bloody conflict between Moldovan security forces and Russian separatists. But he fell out of favor with the local Russian separatist leaders, whom he accused of corruption. Defense Minister Pavel Grachev sided with the ethnic Russians and removed Lebed from his command last July. Lebed declined substitute positions, and retired from the Army.

Describing himself as free from ambiguity or pretense, a plain and honest "officer and gentleman" in contrast to Russia's guileful politicians, the tall general devoted himself to politics. Lebed is well equipped for the task. His reputation for strong character is well established, and with his growling bass voice, he is also a charismatic speaker.

As chairman of the Security Council, he will work to implement vigorous military reform, abolishing the draft and creating an all-volunteer, professional Army. He is also charged with cracking down on crime, the No. 1 social problem in Russia.

Asked if he would investigate corruption even if the problems led to the people close to Yeltsin, Lebed said he would move slowly and peacefully. But, he added, "I will create strong order from this Russian mess," a promise that could set him on a collision course with the president.

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Lebed is one of the few Russian generals who had the courage to condemn the war in Chechnya. More than 50,000 people were killed during this Yeltsin-backed war and 300,000 made homeless.

Lebed knows a quagmire when he sees one: He served as one of the top commanders of the Soviet forces in Afghanistan. He believes that Chechens should have a right to determine their own statehood by referendum. He also insists that Yeltsin should pull out Russian troops and cut Chechnya out of the budget.

That would be entirely appropriate - if there were any money going there in the first place. Russia has practically destroyed Chechnya. But Lebed uses this tough talk in order to save face for a future withdrawal from Chechnya. Under pressure from Lebed, Yeltsin has already fired the major architect of the war.

Lebed's primary support comes from the Congress of Russian Communities, a political bloc run by moderate nationalists and economic liberals. It is an umbrella organization for several influential groups of Russian businessmen: the Federation of Russian Producers, the League of Russian Entrepreneurs, and the Movement of Owners (also known as the Stolypin Society, named after the reformist interior minister of Czar Nicholas II who was assassinated by a leftist terrorist in 1911).

Lebed's economic program was drafted by Russian free-market economists close to these groups and centered around Vitaly Naishul. Mr. Naishul's tank promotes the concepts of "self-reliance" and "self-governance" - the delegation of power from the central to the local governments and the rejection of foreign aid.

Lebed's economic rhetoric during the Russian election was very different from that of other candidates. "I am not going to promise anything to you," he said. "I am not going to play these games. One finds free cheese only in a mousetrap."

SUCH statements add to his credibility in the eyes of voters who are fed up with unfulfilled promises. He attacks statism and social democracy, and says "Nomenklatura capitalism is nothing but chaos."

Unlike the slow and indecisive Yeltsin, Lebed provides the government with new and vigorous approaches to the grave social and economic problems facing Russia. Can Lebed and his friends from the Congress of Russian Communities make a difference? The job of Security Council head is one of the most powerful positions in the Russian government. If he uses his position to Russia's benefit, he may live up to the hopes he has inspired.

*Yuri N. Maltsev, formerly of the USSR Academy of Sciences, teaches economics at Carthage College and is senior fellow of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

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