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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Praise Showered on Hero Lebed

TIRASPOL, Moldova -- "General Lebed is leaving?" exclaimed Raisa, a sales assistant in a grocery store on Tiraspol's main street. "My dear, that is just gossip. He will never go. He saved this city and he has to stay."


General Alexander Lebed, the Russian war hero who has made this dusty garrison town his home since August 1992, has won his latest battle. Defense Minister Pavel Grachev confirmed last week that the outspoken general would keep his post as commander of the 14th Army in the breakaway Russian-majority region of Transdnestr in Moldova -- much to the relief of local residents.


"Lebed is a very good man," said Vera, 45, a schoolteacher waiting for a trolleybus to go home. "He is a military man and he knows what he is doing. If he were elected to the Transdnestr Supreme Soviet instead of President Smirnov," she added bitterly, "then everything would be fine."


It is perhaps not surprising that in a town with thousands of Russian soldiers, many of whose families have been here since the 14th Army arrived in 1945, they would choose a man like Lebed as their hero.


President Igor Smirnov and his colleagues at the Supreme Soviet cannot hope to compete in popularity.


The last great hero in this city was General Alexander Suvorov, the Russian military commander who drove the Turks out of the region and founded Tiraspol 200 years ago.


Colonel Mikhail Bergman, the army's military police chief and Lebed's number two, was effusive in expressing his loyalty to Lebed, coming very close to comparing him with a saint.


"The general is the most famous and extraordinary military commander since Peter the Great and Alexander Suvorov," said the colonel last week. "You know I am a religious man. I believe in God. And when I talk to Lebed, I sometimes feel he is not of this world."


Lebed has won his battle to stay in Tiraspol. He has his power base and he is wildly popular. But it takes only a short time in Transdnestr to discover just who the real losers are.


The 700,000 residents of this once-rich region east of Chisinau have something greater to fear than the threat of another military conflict. Most have trouble trying to get enough to eat. War devastated their economy. The establishment of an autonomous region led to a series of economic disasters, resulting in strict control of the sale of essential goods, rationing, heating restrictions and bickering among the self-proclaimed leaders of the republic.


In Tiraspol few cars travel down the town's wide main street. The stores are stocked with mainly shoddy goods; the lines outside the bread stores snake around the corners and there is little evidence of entrepreneurial activity.


Three kilometers and three indifferent military checkpoints away from Tiraspol, you cross the Dnestr River and arrive in Bendery, the Transdnestr town that suffered the heaviest shelling during the 1992 war. Many buildings still bear the pockmarks of battle.


In the stores and at the markets the main topic of conversation was not Lebed but money. Last week the breakaway republic introduced its second currency in two years. The old Suvorov rubles, a chaotic collection of old Soviet banknotes with small stickers bearing different denominations, have been replaced with crisp freshly minted Transdnestr coupons. They are not recognized by the Moldovan government, nor by any other government, and many expressed their doubts about their value.


Valery, 24, a resident of Bendery, thought they would be worthless in a week. "You have heard of the Belarus zaichiki," he said, referring to the Belarus currency that lasted only about a year. "Well, these will be worse."