Wednesday Book; Another man on a white horse

RUSSIA IS in such a mess that even the army does not want a coup d'etat. The commanders might feel more rebellious if they could rely on the forces at their disposal. But the Russian Army is a shambles.

The Chechen volunteers humbled them in the mid-1990s, and Russian generals have shown more enthusiasm for trading weapons on the black market than for fighting. They even sold to the Chechens. Army officers, once the most flamboyant of all castes in the Soviet state hierarchy, now go round in civilian clothes when they are off duty. Demoralisation is complete.

Just one ex-military man, Alexander Lebed, has held his self-respect and the respect of many Russian voters. In 1996 he came a creditable third in the presidential election and is planning to run again when Boris Yeltsin's term of office ends.

Lebed breaks the rules of the world's mass media. He speaks his mind. Indeed, he shoots his mouth off - on one occasion he lauded the achievements of General Pinochet as Chilean dictator. He does not mind contradicting himself. When he was in Afghanistan, he imposed discipline by lining up 11 of his officers and punching each of them in the face.

Lebed has made a virtue out of his devil-may-care style. It is as if a character had leaped from the pages of one of Tolstoy's novels and burst into 20th-century reality.

But there is more to him than meets the eye. When he was put in charge of the XIV Army in Moldova in 1992, he managed to stop conflict between Russians and Moldovans; and in 1996, after Yeltsin had bought his support by making him security supremo, Lebed did much to bring peace to Chechnya. Russian voters like Lebed not just because he embodies the stereotype of the bluff ex-soldier but also because he has campaigned to end conflict by negotiation and to eliminate corruption.

Once upon a time, Boris Yeltsin had the same image, and it did not take a genius to guess that he would get rid of Lebed as soon as his usefulness faded. The fact that the Chechen negotiators trusted Lebed more than Yeltsin made matters worse. And so the President, having lured his rival into complacency by implying that Lebed was his preferred successor, suddenly removed him from his post.

Yeltsin's excuse was that Lebed could not function as a member of a government team. Thus the pot sacked the kettle. But Lebed has responded by standing successfully, in April this year, for the leadership of the Krasnoyarsk regional administration.

This lively and informative book puts the case for Lebed, using evidence from recent interviews with prominent Russian politicians.

Harold Elletson, Conservative MP for Blackpool North until last year, argues that Russia has been badly misruled in the past decade. One of the author's idiosyncrasies is his fondness for the plotters who conspired against Gorbachev in the August 1991 coup. He even obtained an interview with none other than the former Vice-President of the USSR, Gennadi Yanaev, the drunkard whose nervous TV performance at the beginning of the coup stiffened resistance to the plotters. Why does Elletson warm to Yanaev? Perhaps there is some fellow feeling between the two ousted conservatives.

Yet Elletson has undoubtedly uncovered significant testimony about the events of August 1991, in the most intriguing part of his book. He shows that Lebed, who had operational duties in Moscow at the time, did little to sustain Gorbachev in power. The book's underlying theme is that Gorbachev and Yeltsin are political tricksters and that the time has come for Lebed to pull the country into shape.

But why trust the General? Even the author concedes that Alexander Lebed took money and advice from Yeltsin's aides in the 1996 election while claiming to be an independent. Lebed might speak plainly, but he does not always tell the truth. He has also picked up some dubious associates: among them is Yeltsin's former chief bodyguard and drinking partner Alexander Korzhakov, notorious for wishing to cancel the 1996 election in case Yeltsin did not win.

Harold Elletson defends Lebed as a person with whom the West might do business. But many questions are left unanswered, and even unasked, in the course of his book. The West has a sorry record of backing losers, including charlatans, in Russia. The game of picking winners is a gamble even for Russian voters. But it is their game to play. Then it will at least be their fault if they lose.

Robert Service

The reviewer is Professor of Russian History and Politics in London University. His `Penguin History of Twentieth-Century Russia' will appear in paperback in July.