. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Dismissal Comes After Bodyguards' Street Fight

A frail and halting President Boris Yeltsin went on television Thursday to dismiss Security Council Secretary Alexander Lebed, moving belatedly to quell a dirty battle for control of the Kremlin that had spilled into scuffles on the streets of Moscow.

Speaking slowly but with emotion, Yeltsin attacked the retired general, who has spent only four months in the Kremlin, criticizing Lebed for openly campaigning to become Russia's next president and for brawling with top Kremlin ministers.

The dismissal followed 24 hours of deepening confrontation, in which Lebed and his Kremlin rivals had smeared each other with allegations of treason and fraud and in which Lebed's bodyguard had kidnapped rival Kremlin agents after a street fight near St. Basil's Cathedral.

"There has to be a united team. The team should pull together, work like a fist," Yeltsin said in his 6 p.m. television message. "But now we have a situation whereby Lebed is splitting the team apart and is carrying out a number of moves which he did not agree [on] with the president. This is totally unacceptable."

"Everybody seems to be running for president. I cannot tolerate that any longer,'' Lebed, who in his brief tenure as Yeltsin's security chief has won massive popularity by ending the bloody 22-month war in Chechnya, replied minutes later that he would not contest Yeltsin's decision, but warned of a threat to the fragile peace in the Caucasus.

He told Ekho Moskvy radio the Chechen peace talks will follow "the worst possible scenario" from now on, and warned that hawks such as Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov would try to restart the war and that only "Russian mothers" would stand in his way.

The news of Lebed's removal was not taken well in Chechnya, where separatist foreign minister Ruslan Chimayev said Yeltsin's decision to sack Lebed will have "tragic consequences" for Russia, Interfax reported.

Lebed said he took no offense at Yeltsin's action. "I'm thick-skinned, and I have long since stopped being offended," Lebed told Interfax, adding he had no plans to become president while Yeltsin was alive. But he was quoted by ORT Russian Public Television as saying "a hot autumn was ahead of us. What the temperature will be depends on what the government does."

Lebed also took a parting shot at his rivals. "When at the helm of security forces stand people who, to put it mildly, have rotten hearts, then fighting crime is useless," Lebed told Interfax, in an apparent jibe at Kulikov.

Lebed also accused another bitter enemy, Yeltsin's chief of staff Anatoly Chubais, of "saving up money to run for president," and "building a system of regency," Interfax reported.

Yeltsin's dramatic intervention had been in the wind since Wednesday night when Kulikov staged a fist-pounding press conference in which he claimed to hold documentary evidence that Lebed was planning to conduct a "creeping coup" using his own special Russian Legion force of 50,000 soldiers.

Lebed countered Wednesday night by repeating accusations that Kulikov, whose Interior Ministry troops had garrisoned the Chechen capital, Grozny, in the final stages of the war, was guilty of setting up concentration camps in Chechnya and causing the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians.

Lebed had earlier lashed out against a former ally, Defense Minister Igor Rodionov, for his proposals to cut the number of troops in Russia's airborne division. Lebed has publicly warned in recent weeks that the army is on the brink of mutiny over Kremlin funding cuts.

Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin attempted to calm the feuding by staging a meeting Thursday morning of top Kremlin ministers, including Chubais, Kulikov and Lebed, in which he said both Kulikov and Lebed were partially wrong. Yet Chernomyrdin ordered security to be tightened in Moscow and other large cities, apparently responding to warnings from Kulikov that Lebed would rely on the help of Chechen gunmen to storm the Kremlin.

The prime minister also warned the army not to be made nervous by the fighting of two Kremlin generals, and that Kulikov's accusations of a Kremlin coup were unfounded. "I am far from thinking about mutinies and putsches," Chernomyrdin was quoted by Interfax as telling a government meeting.

He then turned on Lebed, accusing him of "homegrown Bonapartism."

By mid-afternoon, the Lebed-Kulikov war, which had been until then limited to rhetorical sallies, spilled over into physical conflict.

In his Wednesday evening press conference, Lebed had accused Kulikov of using KGB tactics, claiming that "four shadows" from Kulikov's staff were following his every move.

Early Thursday afternoon, Lebed's guards cornered four plainclothes police officers outside Moscow's downtown Rossia Hotel, disarmed them in a brief scuffle and whisked them off to the Security Council, where they were held for four hours. The Security Council then issued a statement through Interfax announcing the four officers were being charged with illegally tailing Lebed.

Alexander Ovchenikov, head of Interior Ministry intelligence forces, staged a press conference of his own later in the day, accusing Lebed of psychologically pressuring the four men into signing confession statements that said they were hired by Kulikov to spy on Lebed.

Ovchenikov said the four men were in Russia as part of the heightened security effort, and that they were in fact tailing a "gang of Chechens" who had rented a room in the hotel.

Yeltsin took Lebed into his administration just days before a run-off presidential election against Communist challenger Gennady Zyuganov. Lebed was then viewed as kingmaker after finishing a strong third in the first round of voting.

But Lebed has attracted growing envy from his rivals for influence in the Kremlin. With Yeltsin sick, Lebed has begun to position himself for an election campaign, forming an alliance with powerful ex-presidential bodyguard Alexander Korzhakov.

Kulikov and Lebed's rivals have responded with a smear campaign, attacking Korzhakov for organized-crime links and Lebed for selling out Russian interests in concluding a Chechen peace deal.

Yeltsin, in his television address, described Lebed's decision to back Korzhakov in his campaign for a Duma seat in Tula as the last straw in Lebed's insubordinate conduct. "Korzhakov is out of office. And now Lebed has taken him down to Tula to show him off as his successor. He has found himself a successor," Yeltsin said with irony. "Some successor. They are birds of a feather. Two generals."

Lebed had fallen "victim to the party of war" that seeks "a continuation of the slaughter in Chechnya," Chimayev said.