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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'Convenient Marriage' Puts Lebed on Inside Track

Both are tall men with booming bass voices, battered faces, outsized egos and a history of rebellion. Their new alliance -- if it sticks -- is far more than just another reshuffle behind the red walls of the Kremlin.


Alexander Lebed's sudden promotion Tuesday to become Boris Yeltsin's top security adviser and secretary of his Security Council is a marriage of convenience to help Yeltsin win the second round of the presidential election.


But in the longer term it should give the 46-year-old paratrooper an inside track in the fight to succeed Yeltsin in 2000 or even earlier, if the 65-year-old president succumbs to health problems.


Yeltsin, looking like an angler who had just landed a particularly large and tasty fish, displayed his catch to reporters Monday and hinted Lebed might be his preferred successor as president.


"They looked like father and son today," said one seasoned Western observer.


But will Yeltsin, a man accustomed to dealing with subordinates and advisers rather than equals, be able to give Lebed enough real power to satisfy his political ambitions?


The two men are 19 years apart in age but resemble each other in more than just their gruff exteriors. Both are products of Soviet hierarchies -- in Yeltsin's case the Communist Party and in Lebed's the army's airborne troops.


But both kicked over the traces and fell into disgrace -- Yeltsin in 1987 when he left the politburo for the political wilderness, and Lebed in 1995 when Defense Minister Pavel Grachev got him sacked as commander of the 14th army.


Yeltsin has always seemed to look indulgently on the outspoken, trouble-making Lebed as a younger version of himself. Normally sensitive to insults, he did not react in 1994 when Lebed, still in uniform, described his president and commander-in-chief as a "minus."


During the election campaign Lebed described Yeltsin as "an old and not very healthy man whose work is done."


Last September he said in an interview Yeltsin had done nothing good for Russia but he was ready to let the president retire and grow strawberries.


Such remarks will now be forgotten. But Lebed will be strongly aware of what happened to the last top uniformed figure to join Yeltsin's team -- former vice-president Alexander Rutskoi. Rutskoi, an Afghan war hero and Soviet air force general, was picked at short notice by Yeltsin as a running-mate for the 1991 presidential election to boost his standing with the military and with nationalist-minded voters. But the choice proved a disaster; Rutskoi was ruthlessly shut out by liberal Kremlin aides, and took his revenge by denouncing Yeltsin's economic reforms. In October 1993 he led a failed uprising in Moscow to try to overthrow the president.


Russia no longer has a vice-president, but Lebed's position will be stronger than Rutskoi's because he has his own political base -- in the shape of more than 10 million votes.


The risk for Lebed is that as a novice in the world of Kremlin intrigue, he will be outmaneuvered in the corridors of power, even if he has Yeltsin's backing.


He may face resistance to his plans for military reform from top generals, and hostility from some in the Kremlin if he tackles top-level corruption.


He may also lose much of his charismatic following if he is perceived as just the fish wriggling on the end of Yeltsin's hook rather than as a political heavyweight in his own right.


But in exchange, Lebed wins an entry ticket to the Kremlin corridors at the highest level, where he can overcome his lack of politmcal experience. While not completely unsackable, his electoral clout will make him hard to remove.


Until now Yeltsin has avoided grooming a successor, but his continued endorsement could be Lebed's best asset in preparing his campaign for the presidential election after this one.


For Yeltsin, the electoral attraction of having Lebed in his team is obvious. But the risk is that Lebed could start to pursue his own political agenda rather than Yeltsin's and seek too high a profile.





He could also prove a deadly enemy if the two men, both with giant egos, fall out.





Now an embittered figure on the hardline fringe of opposition politics, Rutskoi denounced Lebed on Monday as a provocateur.





and their ideas are compatible; unlike Rutskoi, Lebed, for all his barrack-room language, is neither an extreme Russian nationalist nor a conservative authoritarian hardliner.