Install

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

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lebed: Next Napoleon?

During the first round of the presidential elections, retired general Alexander Lebed was able to show 15 percent of the electorate that his intentions were pure, noble and important for Russia. He must now demonstrate that he can put his program into practice. Moreover, he must prove that he can survive in the intricate, behind-the-scenes struggles in the Kremlin. And this is one of the most important reasons for his possible fall from grace.


What do the Kremlin court and its ruler fear? Those in the president's circle are afraid that he will obtain excessive powers at their expense. Besides, the general is unpredictable, severe and alien to the Kremlin. He seems prepared to wage a serious battle with corruption, including corruption at the highest levels of government.


The president fears that Lebed will receive far too much power and at the same time hold on to his authority in the eyes of the population. This would allow the general, who has on several occasions expressed his admiration for the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, to carry out a coup d'etat, given the right moment. Moreover, Lebed is popular among the armed forces. Who can guarantee that one day the general will not appear on the evening news alongside Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov with an emotional speech like:


"Russia finds itself in a difficult crisis, which has gripped every sphere of life: economics, politics, culture, morality and statehood itself. The Kremlin leadership has sullied itself in corruption and internal squabbles. It is morally dissipated and not fit to run the state. In these conditions, true patriots are faced with a difficult choice: either to continue being witnesses and participants in the downfall of a great state or take the burden of responsibility for the fate of our motherland upon ourselves. We chose the path toward responsibility and honor and call upon all citizens, who hold the fate of the country dear, to support us in this decisive hour."


Yesterday's unexpected nomination of Lebed's teacher and friend, General Igor Rodionov, to the post of defense minister has strengthened the security tsar's influence considerably. If in normal circumstances, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin has until now prevailed on economic policy matters and not met with any serious opposition, the same could not be said if extraordinary conditions were to arise. In an emergency or crisis situation, Lebed would clearly have an advantage over his rivals.


What will Lebed be occupied with in the Kremlin? There are several directions he will take.


The first is military reform. Lebed seems ready to roll up his sleeves and set down to work on this. And the Kremlin will be urging him on. It will do so in the hope that he will break his neck in the process. First of all, any attempts to carry out reform in this area will immediately alienate a large part of the generals, which would undermine Lebed's social base in the Defense Ministry and make it impossible for him to rely on the army as a corporate force in critical periods. Second, there is simply not enough money for such reform, and no one is likely to provide it any time soon.


Another of the main tasks will be the fight against corruption. But this is a very complex and dangerous battle. Many of the highest levels of government are corrupt, with the apparent exception of the president himself. Therefore, various clans will attempt to direct this fight against corruption toward their rivals. Lebed will inevitably be used by different groups in their fight against each other.


Lebed has a very good chance not only of winning in his fight against crime but significantly strengthening his authority with the population. He has shown that he has the determination, public support and experience -- which he gained in the self-proclaimed Transdnestr republic -- to be effective. But in the absence of a strong rule of law, the fight against crime is likely to take on the form of a war. Such a war would provoke strong reactions from human rights organizations and could ultimately turn the public against him.


But besides attempting to carry out his pre-election campaign program, Lebed's enormous ambitions will lead him to fight for the future presidency. In this fight for the presidency, he has entered a game with strong competitors -- Chernomyrdin and Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov -- who are also vying to be Yeltsin's successor. The rivalry among them could also involve temporary alliances. The first move in this game was the establishment of relations between Luzhkov and Lebed in the fight against crime in Moscow and the friction between Chernomyrdin and Lebed over the possible powers of the new security tsar. But like a kaleidoscope, this configuration of forces is unlikely to last long.


Lebed's relationship to Yeltsin will be particularly critical. On the one hand, Yeltsin is wary of the general. On the other, he needs Lebed to clean up the regime, help bring society back to health and act as a counterbalance to Chernomyrdin. Besides, I think that Yeltsin is simply sympathetic to Lebed and sees in him something of himself seven years ago.


Is Lebed prepared to play the role of Napoleon by carrying out a social and economic revolution while avoiding its excesses and returning Russia to the world stage? He would like to play such a role, and there are forces in society that would like to see him do so. But there are many obstacles in the way, including the Kremlin leader himself. Lebed has come across as a political wunderkind. Whether he will mature into a political genius depends not so much on his policy innovations as systematic work on strengthening his political base.





Sergei Markov is a senior analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.