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Lebed set to seize Siberian powerbase

ALL EYES in Russia were yesterday on the Siberian region of Krasnoyarsk, where elections for the post of governor are seen as a test of whether the former paratroop general Alexander Lebed can successfully campaign for the Russian presidency in 2000.

After the gravelly voiced Lebed forged ahead of the incumbent governor, a rather lacklustre academic called Valery Zubov, in the first round of voting last month, Communists and market reformers joined in urging voters not to release from the bottle a genie who could become a dictator in the next century.

But first results last night suggested General Lebed would sweep the board, with about 60 per cent of the votes, and that Mr Zubov would gain only about 36 per cent.

Russia's Communist leader, Gennady Zyuganov, did not mince his words when he recently compared General Lebed to Augusto Pinochet, the former military dictator of Chile.

General Lebed is a good army officer who saved the former Soviet republic of Moldova from ethnic clashes after the Soviet Union broke up. But he is more controversial as a politician. He did so well in Russia's presidential elections in 1996 that the victorious Boris Yeltsin took him on to the Kremlin team, making him National Security Adviser.

But although he managed to bring the disastrous war in break-away Chechnya to an end, General Lebed became involved in ugly intrigues with his colleagues in government and the President sacked him after only a few months for being "a bad team player".

Since then, General Lebed has nursed a grievance against Mr Yeltsin while smoothing his own political image and improving the cut of his now- civilian suits. He has travelled to both the United States and France, where he has been well received in some political and business circles, and has built up considerable campaign funds.

He has told Krasnoyarsk voters he wants to be a good governor and has no further ambitions of national leadership. Only the most naive believe that.

Pundits continue to include General Lebed in pre-2000 opinion polls that show him running more or less level with several other anti-Communist presidential candidates.

In the first round of voting in Krasnoyarsk in April, Governor Zubov, who had seemed certain of winning a second term on his home territory until General Lebed threw his hat into the ring, found himself upstaged by the charismatic outsider.

The general-turned-politician delivered bags of potatoes to hungry peasants in neglected rural areas and managed to lure on a visit to Siberia the ageing French matinee idol, Alain Delon, whom Russians adore.

Ahead of the second round, Mr Zubov hit back. National politicians normally as mutually hostile as Yuri Luzhkov, the dynamic Mayor of Moscow, spoke out in favour of the beleaguered governor while the pop diva Alla Pugacheva flew out to lend her support.

However, there was also another singer in Krasnoyarsk, Lyudmila Zykina, a folk performer as big in Russia as Frank Sinatra was in America, and her stage outfit was a white, winged affair that many took to be a gesture of support for Lebed. (His surname means "swan".)

General Lebed's own campaign posters promise "Truth and Order", an appealing slogan for many, including the workers at blocking the trans-Siberian railway in protest over unpaid wages, who feel the benefits of Mr Yeltsin's democracy have passed them by.