General who makes Moscow tremble

Russians see a saviour for their rotting republic in a two-star commander whose fearless broadsides against sleaze spare no one

THE WORDS come out not in sentences but in salvoes - deep, guttural rumbles more akin to an artillery barrage than any normal speech. In a land destitute of straight-shooting heroes and rich in two-faced villains, Lt-Gen. Alexander Lebed makes a thunderous impact. His blunt message, like his voice, is not for the squeamish.

He makes liberals squirm with his praise for Chile's former dictator, General Augusto Pinochet, and unnerves former Soviet satraps with his dim view of what he considers "dwarf states" doomed to extinction.

"The so-called bloody General Pinochet seized power and, during the 18 years of his regime, he had 3,000 killed," growls General Lebed across his spotless desk in the headquarters of Russia's 14th Army. "He was a mere boy. Here they kill more than that in a single day."

If opinion polls are to be believed, however, many ordinary Russians are long past feeling queasy about such grim arithmetic. They want order. They want discipline. And, say those who cry for a strong but sane hand to put Russia's ramshackle house in order, they want someone like General Lebed - not a jingoistic clown like Vladimir Zhirinovsky - to move in and stop the rot.

His public image, carefully cultivated in regular appearances on Russian television and interviews in the press, is a mix of Rambo (only Russian and better-read), Napoleon (only much taller) and Ross Perot (almost as ugly - he describes his own face as "not so nice to look at" or even "Neanderthal" - but without the squeaky voice).

If he has a programme, it is that people should be able to work in peace. This, he says, was what Pinochet did in Chile. "He made everyone work. He shook up the whole country so much that they began working for themselves and for their families and in the long run for their state. Then he gave the power back to a civilian government and now Chile is one of the most developed countries in South America. It might be a paradox but it is a fact."

Democracy, he says, is fine, but Russia is generations from understanding it. "You cannot have freedom from everything, from laws, from morals." The only change he sees is one of ideological camouflage by the ruling lite: "Having thrown away their party cards, they can cast their democratic banners into the corner just as easily, and they will go on leading us somewhere else, to the next bright future."

A paratroop officer in Afghanistan and soldier's soldier for the past 25 of his 44 years, General Lebed casts himself as an action-man avenger unafraid of standing up for Russia's interests.

But nationalism, he says, must be tempered by what he considers his guiding principle: common sense. Almost alone among prominent Russian soldiers, he has had a "good war" in Chechnya: he never went near it. He condemns the entire venture as ludicrous. "Our ears will be burning from this for a long time," he says, predicting a long guerrilla conflict as the best Russia can hope for. (The nightmare scenario, he says, is the entire Caucasus set ablaze and the country dragged back into the past).

While denying political ambitions, General Lebed sounds off constantly about politics. The ante-room of his office is filled with uniformed soldiers waiting for their commander to finish a busy schedule of media interviews. "A normal army in a normal, civilised state has nothing to do with politics." But, sadly, he adds, Russia is neither. "Unfortunately, any problem now becomes a political one. If I enter politics it is just because it is necessary."

Moscow, it seems, is always on his mind. The only decoration in his cavernous office at the headquarters of Russia's 14th Army in the dusty town of Tiraspol on the banks of the River Dnestr are two posters. One shows St Basil's Cathedral on Red Square. The other, hanging right behind his desk, features the Kremlin.

A survey last year of 650 Russian officers put General Lebed at the top of a popularity chart, with a nearly 60 per cent approval rating - twice that of President Boris Yeltsin and five times higher than Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Particularly popular among fellow officers are his vitriolic broadsides against desk-bound generals in Moscow: "The army does not need specialists in treading on their own pricks."

The big question for both friend and foe is how he might make the 800- mile journey from his current job, in the forgotten purlieus of empire in the former Soviet republic of Moldavia, to the Russian capital. With fewer than 10,000 soldiers under his command in a military more than million strong,General Lebed is not about to launch any march on Moscow.

More likely is some sort of political push. As with General Colin Powell in the US, there is an aura and ambiguity about him that could make him an attractive recruit to a wide range of political groupings looking for a charismatic standard-bearer.

Though often cited as a strong contender to replace Russia's deeply tainted Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, his ferocious independence and popularity - three-quarters of Russian officers favour him for the top post - are unlikely to endear him to Mr Yeltsin. A further problem is his relatively modest rank: he has only two stars.

Unlike many Russian military bases, often shambolic and filthy, 14th Army HQ at Tiraspol is kept spick and span. Soldiers are immaculately dressed and talk of their commander with reverence. He first became a household name - and something of a national hero - in 1992 when, with a burst of artillery fire along the Dnestr in Moldova, he embraced what has since become a dominant theme of increasingly nationalist Russian politics: the need to protect 25 million Russians stranded in the outposts of Moscow's shattered empire. Despite orders to stay neutral in a messy conflict between pro-Romanian and pro-Moscow nationalists in Moldova, he ordered his men to halt Moldovan government troops sent towards Tiraspol to crush a breakaway Slav enclave called the Trans-Dnestr Republic.

He has since fallen out with the Trans-Dnestr clique he rescued, condemning it as corrupt and incompetent, but he still has a reputation across Russia as a man willing to stand up for the interests of ordinary Russians, whether stranded in the "near abroad" or merely frightened by the crime and corruption of Russia itself.

His frequent verbal fusillades leave little standing. Bogus democrats, corrupt bureaucrats and, since the start of the war in Chechnya, his commander- in-chief, Mr Yeltsin, all come under attack: "The President took the decision; he is to blame for everything, no doubt about it. His principal fault was to surround himself with people who do not inform him of the real situation."

General Lebed revels in causing offence: "The army needs active, impudent, purposeful people. They should know how to take enemy lines by assault."

His main enemy at the moment seems to be his nominal boss and former comrade-in-arms, Mr Grachev. The two men trained together as paratroopers and fought together in Afghanistan. But, laments, General Lebed: "He has changed greatly. Over there he was a commander. Now he is a chief."

Asked about his own plans, he insists he wants to stay a soldier. But, he quickly adds, Russia is unpredictable: "Here anything is possible. We are falling into an abyss and might grasp at anything to save our lives." Even a general in the Kremlin? "I didn't say that. You did. Theoretically, though, anything can happen. It is up to Russia to decide. It will think it over and make a decision. It is so big. It is hurt by its size. But it will wake up soon."

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