Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lebed's 'Fall' Could Raise Him Higher

Alexander Lebed's expulsion from the Kremlin may mark the end of his four months as a Yeltsin courtier, but it is by no means the end of his career and may not even be a setback.


The charismatic former general has never concealed that his ultimate goal is to become president of Russia, and his new role as an opposition martyr might be the perfect bridgehead for his ambitions.


Lebed's decision to enter President Boris Yeltsin's cabinet, just after the first round of the presidential elections, was always a political marriage of convenience for two men of overpowering ambition rather than any meeting of minds.


Yeltsin took Lebed on board as a clincher in his mortal battle with Communist challenger Gennady Zyuganov, hoping the 11 million voters who chose Lebed would swing behind him.


But for the ambitious Lebed, the deal also made sense. Barely a year after quitting his job as a mid-level officer in command of Russian troops in Moldova, it rocketed him from an anonymous seat in the State Duma to the front row of Russian politics.


To keep Lebed on his side, at least until the second round of elections, Yeltsin was forced to kowtow to the young general, hinting that Lebed was his anointed successor.


With Yeltsin's re-election, Lebed made full use of his new Kremlin base to raise his political profile, taking on a portfolio But Lebed the would-be candidate received the opportunity he must have been dreaming of when Yeltsin gave him the job of restoring Russian pride and averting a catastrophe after Chechen separatists routed Russian troops and retook Grozny in early August.


In taking what looked like an impossible assignment, Lebed was well aware that his rivals in the cabinet, especially Chubais and Chernomyrdin, were hoping he would "break his neck on it."


But it turned out to be his finest hour, an apotheosis of Lebed as peacemaker and fearless strong man. The retired general flew down to talk directly with the Chechen separatists. After Russian generals ignored his calls for a cease-fire and threatened to flatten Grozny, Lebed flew down, reprimanded the generals and stopped a certain bloodbath.


Chernomyrdin, Chubais and Yeltsin were forced, reluctantly and tardily, to acknowledge Lebed's success in ending an unpopular and costly 20-month war in Chechnya.


They kept a hostage to fortune, however, refusing Lebed's ultimatum to sack Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov, the man Lebed blamed for the debacle in Grozny. This cauldron of rivalries deep within the cabinet may have simmered indefinitely, with Lebed and his rivals jockeying for influence and electoral advantage, had it not been for the admission in September that Yeltsin was seriously ill and would need heart surgery.


The unstated but crucial factor in Russian politics suddenly became the chance that Yeltsin would die or be incapacitated and early presidential elections called. Lebed and his rivals, especially Chernomyrdin and Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov, became increasingly involved in what Yeltsin on Thursday night described as "an election campaign." Any idea of cabinet unity quickly became a fiction.


The Moscow political establishment declared open season on Lebed, who now loomed as the front-runner in the increasingly likely event of presidential elections. The strategy, spearheaded by Kulikov, was to undermine Lebed's achievements, painting his peace deals as a sellout and betrayal.


But Lebed was also positioning himself for a campaign, cutting a political deal with Alexander Korzhakov, the powerful former presidential bodyguard whom Yeltsin had sacked in June.


The alliance was ideologically unlikely: Lebed had run on a clean government campaign, while Korzhakov had built up a vast but shadowy empire of influence and money that mixed the state security apparatus and organized crime.


But the match was politically terrifying for Lebed's rivals. Lebed offered the faceless Korzhakov political respectability and, with his connections and money, Korzhakov could offer the political parvenu from Transdnestr the party machine he needed to launch a political campaign.


For the past two weeks, the opposing camps in the cabinet have been hurling mud at each other or at their proxies. Lebed and Kulikov have been locked in a bitter war over who was right on Chechnya. Meanwhile, Korzhakov and Chubais' allies have accused each other of everything from extortion to murder.


With the rhetoric boiling over into scuffles on the streets of Moscow, Yeltsin finally intervened Thursday. Predictably, he chose in favor of Chernomyrdin and Chubais, who have been content to serve as loyal regents during his sickness, sacking Lebed from all his posts.


But although deprived of the direct trappings of power, candidate Lebed may have become a more dangerous opponent for Chubais and Chernomyrdin.


Despite the mud thrown at him, he has emerged almost spotless, and were an election called tomorrow, he would be odds-on to win. He has already announced he will devote himself full-time to politics. Freed from the formal constraints of cabinet solidarity, the daring warrior may find he is in a better position to demolish rivals, build coalitions and plan his campaign.