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Kremlin takes fright as Lebed bids for power

ALEXANDER LEBED, the former paratrooper general once rated as Russia's most trusted politician, is about to face the most important battle to date in his campaign to take over the Kremlin.

This weekend he hopes to burst out of the wings on to the centre stage of Russian politics by winning the governorship of Krasnoyarsk, a mineral- rich region in western Siberia four times the size of Texas.

Voters will go to the polls on Sunday for the final round of the election, which, if Mr Lebed triumphs, will make him a front-runner in the race to replace Boris Yeltsin. The contest, which pitches him against the incumbent governor, Valery Zubov, a moderate pro-marketeer, is seen as a test-bed for the presidential election in 2000, and has drawn in worried rivals, power-hungry oligarchs and the Kremlin.

Victory for Mr Lebed, a nationalist, would restore much of the clout he lost when an ungrateful Mr Yeltsin signed a decree, live on national television, firing him as head of the Security Council. His dismissal came only four months after Mr Yeltsin gave him the job in a brazen attempt to win over his 10.7 million share of the vote between the two rounds of the 1996 presidential elections. His sacking - the product of infighting amid the President's aides - came despite his success in brokering an end to the Chechen war; it set a vengeful Mr Lebed on Mr Yeltsin's heels.

The fact that Mr Lebed, 48, who last month won the first round of the Krasnoyarsk election with 45 per cent, seems likely to win has raised alarm throughout Russia's political establishment. He has made no secret of his plan to use the job, which gives him a helpful seat in the Federation Council, as a launching pad for a bid for the highest office.

The Communists fear he will take a large bite out of their stagnant electorate, burying their slender hopes of succeeding Mr Yeltsin. His rivals know one of his weaknesses, the lack of big-time money, could be solved. To the alarm of the Kremlin, and of much of the Moscow financial and social elite ranged behind it, he would be well-placed to recruit Siberia's raw-material barons to bankroll his presidential bid.

That anxiety was reflected by Moscow's mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, a frontrunner for the presidency, who has pitched in to help Mr Lebed's opponent; the mayor is well aware that Mr Lebed is a fellow nationalist and a genuine rival for his turf, who shares his flare for publicity.

Mr Lebed's brother, Alexei, another trombone-voiced ex-para, is governor of the neighbouring Khakassia region. As the central government tries to assert its control over 11 time zones, it faces the spectre of two brothers in alliance; brothers who control the vast sweep of land which links European and Asian Russia, a prize fiefdom with its rich legacy of nickel, oil and bauxite.

As the poll approaches, nightly news bulletins regularly lead with accounts of the daily duel for Siberia's hearts and minds. Pressing regional issues - unpaid wages, a crumbling infrastructure - have been largely overshadowed by the gladiatorial struggle.

The tactics of the American campaign trail abound. Mr Lebed, who long ago swapped khaki for cashmere and silk, is supported by spin doctors overseeing a super-slick PR operation. Their coups include a visit from the French film star Alain Delon, a big star in Russia.

Yesterday Mr Zubov, a former economics professor and Yeltsin loyalist who was a shoo-in until Mr Lebed entered the fray, counterattacked by wheeling in Russia's female pop diva, Alla Pugachyova. The governor, supported by the Kremlin, is putting up a spirited fight. "Fascists hide behind your back," snapped Mr Zubov in a television debate this week. "I have not used my fists in a long time," retorted Mr Lebed, an ex-boxer who has boasted of breaking the jaws of soldiers who brutalised their juniors.

And that last detail is the principal problem with Mr Lebed. A hero of the Afghan war and broker of a lasting cease-fire in Moldova, he styles himself as a democrat, albeit it one who places a sharp accent on law and order. He talks of encouraging private investment, fighting corruption, and stimulating the market economy.

But his critics, especially in the West, where he is viewed with concern, have not forgotten a tirade in which he called Mormons "mould and scum", and cited Russia's "rusty missiles" as a response to Nato expansion. Such remarks can be put down to stump rhetoric. His record, particularly, his performance in Chechnya, outshines his sillier outbursts. Yet it is impossible to be absolutely sure that a despot's heart does not beat beneath the soft folds of his charcoal suit.