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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lebed Gambles With 5-Year Plan

If Alexander Lebed hoped to walk out of all-night Chechnya negotiations in Dagestan on Saturday morning, declare the 21-month war over, and be hailed as a national hero, he was in for deep disappointment.


Not only does Russia's security chief find himself politically isolated in Moscow and routinely snubbed by his boss, President Boris Yeltsin, but he is also taking a huge gamble on public opinion.


For while the deal itself seems inoffensive to the point of vague -- merely putting off any fundamental political decisions for five years -- reactions in the press have varied from hostile to merely cynical.


The nationalist Zavtra newspaper headlined its Saturday issue: "Lebed-Traitor," while the communist Sovietskaya Rossia tied Lebed to a Western conspiracy.


But if the predictable responses of Zavtra and Sovietskaya Rossia can be dismissed, more serious papers were not far behind.


Nezavisimaya Gazeta called for Yeltsin's head in its Saturday edition for seemingly agreeing with Lebed and ceding Russian soil to a gang of Chechen rebels. "What is needed is to demand the resignation of a stupid government that signed a surrender at the hands of a foreign, rebellious, armed people who are far from guiltless," wrote the paper's editor Vitaly Tretyakov.


Commersant Daily was more forgiving of Lebed's efforts, but it hardly endorsed them. "Russia's surrender to Chechen rebels has stirred a wave of Easter-type joy among the population of the defeated nation," the paper wrote.


Unfortunately for the former paratrooper general, public "joy" and support are now essential to him, because he finds himself politically isolated inside the government, while his political rivals in the opposition are also salivating over the prospect of his disgrace.


While Lebed did get an audience with Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin on Monday morning to brief him on the plan's details, he said his phone calls to Yeltsin went unanswered. The president's support was not forthcoming.


A spokesman for the Communist Party said it would formulate an official response to the peace agreement Tuesday, but he also said he thought Lebed might regret declaring the conflict over.


"The more ferocious fighting may indeed be over for now," said Andrei Andreyev. "But what this agreement has done is extend the war for another five years."


Analysts said the Kremlin may be forced to back Lebed's plan in the end due to a lack of viable options, but that it will do so without enthusiasm.


After 21 months of war and more than 30,000 casualties, analysts said the best option for the Kremlin is to "save face" by signing on to a murky agreement which neither gives up Chechnya nor claims it a part of the Russian Federation -- and Lebed has provided just that. The trouble for Yeltsin, according to Andrei Kortunov of Moscow's Russian Science Foundation, is that Lebed harbors presidential ambitions. He cannot be encouraged in casting himself as the man who ended the war in Chechnya, a war that Yeltsin started.


That presents Yeltsin with a dilemma. He cannot speak out directly against Lebed as he is part of the cabinet, yet he is reluctant to fire Lebed because the general's failure will be seen as the government's failure too.


"After all, it is Chernomyrdin who was head of the original committees on Chechnya," Kortunov said. "Lebed still reports directly to Chernomyrdin, and Chernomyrdin has long been trying to bring the war to an end."


Kortunov said the most likely result of the weekend's agreement is that if it becomes apparent the plan is working the administration will latch on, but it will publicly praise the prime minister -- not Lebed -- for any success.


"Time is on Lebed's side," Kortunov said. "If the Kremlin drags things out the way it did on the military agreement, Lebed will go directly to the people."


Provided, that is, that the people -- and the media -- are willing to listen.