Russia's Lone Ranger

Alexander Lebed breaks jaws and makes bitter enemies. But if he makes peace in Chechnya he will be a hero and Boris Yeltsin's heir apparent. Dark forces, says Phil Reeves, are ranged against him
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Not long ago, Alexander Lebed, who has a weakness for headline- grabbing remarks, described his relationship with his new boss, Boris Yeltsin, in the following glowing terms. "He is a regular guy. I'm a regular guy. We get along."

It was hardly surprising. The president had just swept the retired two- star general to the pinnacle of power in Russia. Like a tsar besotted with a new friend, Yeltsin heaped favours into the lap of his protege, making him secretary of the Security Council and his national security adviser over night. "This is not just an appointment," the president enthused, as he posed with his new right-hand man in an ornate Kremlin office, "This is a union of two politicians."

Nearly 11 weeks on, the union appears to be falling apart. Everyone always knew that the main reason Yeltsin recruited Lebed was because he wanted to snap up the 10.7 million votes the general won (with secret Kremlin backing) in the first round of this summer's presidential election. But, for a while, he seemed genuinely smitten. He even hinted that Lebed was his choice for the next president.

No more. In the past few days, Yeltsin has slammed a door in the general's face by refusing his requests for a meeting to discuss a settlement in Chechnya. The president's aides say he is on holiday at a state country lodge near Moscow, where Leonid Brezhnev once hunted bears with Fidel Castro.

Ignoring Lebed's desires for a quick accord - vital in the Caucasus where there are so many unsettled scores - the president's staff said last night that Mr Yeltsin had finally examined a dossier on the crisis supplied by the general on Wednesday last week, and had issued instructions to "consolidate the peace process". But the two men had not met face to face and vital days had been lost.

Such is the apparent disdain with which the president has treated Lebed that the general had earlier suggested that it was jeopardising negotiations, snuffing out hope of an end to the war in the troubled Muslim republic, where at least 35,000 people have been killed in the past 20 months. As refugees trickle back into bombed-out Grozny, rumours circulated that Lebed - who is prone to being hot-tempered and impulsive - was on the verge of quitting.

Although he seems unlikely to go ahead with that threat, it would be a disaster for Chechnya and Russia if he does. Just over three weeks after Chechen separatist fighters wrecked Boris Yeltsin's inauguration ceremony by storming into Grozny, Lebed has made surprising progress, despite pessimists who said (and still say) that the war is destined to grind on for ever. The 46-year-old general has secured a military truce and has opened discussions on a long-term political settlement. Despite plentiful evidence that his relationship with Mr Yeltsin has cooled sharply, he remains the Kremlin's best hope, and probably its only hope, of ending the carnage.

For a start, the rebels seem to like and trust him. They quickly warmed to his direct manner, and his open admission that the Kremlin is ensnared in a disastrous, corrupt and unwinnable war.

As the commander of airborne troops, he has experienced other separatist conflicts in Afghanistan, Georgia, Moldova, and Azerbaijan. The rebels also admired his courage. In contrast to the heavily armed entourages that surround most Russian commanders on visits to enemy territory, only three bodyguards accompanied Lebed on his initial meetings with the Chechen chief-of-staff, Aslan Maskhadov.

Yet recent events have made it clear that the conflict has a larger dimension. Yeltsin's off-hand treatment of Lebed suggests that Chechnya has become a crucible in which the power-brokers in the Kremlin will forge their relationships with one another. Centre-stage stands the burly frame of Mr Lebed, the newcomer who is struggling to be heard.

Lebed, a former boxer with a broken nose, has long been fond of depicting himself as a sort of Russian Lone Ranger, single-handedly taking on the crude might of the system. His now scarcely available autobiography, I am Embarrassed for the Nation, is said to portray a hero who triumphs over a world populated by incompetent dolts, occasionally using brawn before brains. He proudly describes how he disciplined a group of 10 soldiers who had been carrying out a brutal initiation ceremony on new recruits in Afghanistan: he broke their jaws.

In Lebed's eyes, such exploits are all part of the self-styled persona of "a born winner". He is, he told the Financial Times recently, a "fatalist who is convinced that what is written at a man's birth will come to pass" - in his case, power. But he faces a tough task if he is to carve himself a niche in the Kremlin, in the face of opposition from Mr Yeltsin himself.

For one thing, his power base is uncertain. He has not got the backing of a ministry. He acknowledges the fact that he has plenty of enemies. In fact, he relishes it, observing that "a large number of enemies always makes a real man more attractive, and, of course, I have them."

These include generals and officials who deeply resent his interference with a war that many still want to settle by crushing the Chechens. Others, rolling in ill-gotten war profits, simply want to prolong it. He has also ruffled the feathers of three of the Kremlin's most powerful players: the president's chief-of-staff, Anatoly Chubais; the interior minister, Anatoly Kulikov, and the prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin. Mr Yeltsin's current tactic may be intended to show the upstart Lebed that Mr Chernomyrdin is now the favoured heir.

Nor has Lebed any significant political party behind him to defend his corner. His three titles - Security Council Secretary, national security adviser, and presidential envoy to Chechnya - can be taken away by Mr Yeltsin as suddenly as he bestowed them. The general's strength resides in his popularity and, more importantly, in the media, which he is cultivating with all the zeal of a Hollywood PR agent.

Although he tries to depict himself as a plain-speaking soldier - a Kent from King Lear, a Ross Perot with pips - his limelight-grabbing instincts belong more to a wily courtier. If anything, he has improved his publicity skills in the past few years, despite several gaffes which opened the lid on the darker side of his brand of patriotism. The worst of these came shortly after his arrival in office, when he described Mormons as "mould and scum" and made a slighting reference to Jews - remarks for which he apologised after an outcry that reached as far as the US White House.

He loves to perform for interviewers. Holding a Camel cigarette aloft in a long cigarette holder, he lowers his cliff-like forehead and switches on a long unblinking stare. His victim tamed, he begins to rumble forth in a voice so low that you feel like poking him on the lapel and asking him to speak properly.

"The Soviet Union died," he told me shortly before his meteoric rise. "The person who is not sorry about its destruction has no heart. But the person who dreams of restoring it has no brains."

Such neat bursts of proverbial wisdom have won him friends among the Russian press. They rarely return from an encounter with Mr Lebed without a good story backed up by pithy, and often surprisingly witty quotes, and a stock of historical parallels - from Stalin, to Churchill, to Northern Ireland.

The relatives of Chechens who had been killed during the war were "wolves", willing to fight to the death, he told a hall full of journalists. "No army in the world can win a war against such people," he declared. "A country that claims to be a democratic state cannot settle ethnic problems using rockets and shells."

But, he boasted, given the chance, he could solve the conflict in "20- 25 minutes". In the same speech, he referred to the deportation by Stalin of the entire Chechen nation to Siberia and Central Asia in 1944. The Chechens were pleased. And the Moscow newspapers were impressed. Most of them have applauded his peace initiative; this week Kommersant declared him to be the "bravest politician and general in Russia".

The accolade reflects the undercurrent of popular support that Lebed enjoys in Russia - despite anger among the army's and interior ministry's old guard. If he pulls off the peace talks (despite Boris Yeltsin's sluggish unco-operativeness), he will be a national hero in a country that is heartily sick of seeing its young men slaughtered for nothing. He will also become the clear favourite for the presidency.

No one will care a jot that his politics are still somewhat foggy and that his commitment to democracy is uncertain. We know he is relaxed about Nato expansion, passionate about military reform and law and order, and an advocate of pragmatic "common sense" nationalism. He has persistently warned that Russia is on the verge of a social revolt, and appears to believe that the way to avert this is by restoring order by making government departments answerable to a powerful autonomous structure - his own Security Council.

"Power," he remarks, ominously, "is never given, it can only be seized." For the time being he is playing a heroic role, which Mr Yeltsin is failing adequately to support. But that does not make him a regular guy.