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."

Sport
Raheem Sterling and Luis Suarez celebrate during Liverpool's game with Norwich
sport Another hurdle is out of the way for Brendan Rodgers' side
Sport
Luis Suarez celebrates after scoring in Liverpool's 3-2 win over Norwich
Football Vine shows Suarez writhing in pain before launching counter attack
Arts & Entertainment
The original design with Charles' face clearly visible, which is on display around the capital
arts + ents The ad shows Prince Charles attired for his coronation in a crown and fur mantle with his mouth covered by a criss-cross of white duct tape
Sport
Steven Gerrard had to be talked into adopting a deeper role by his manager, Brendan Rodgers
sport LIVEFollow the latest news and scores from today's Premier League as Liverpool make a blistering start against Norwich
VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
News
People White House officials refuse to make comment on 275,000 signatures that want Justin Bieber's US visa revoked
News
Sir Cliff Richard is to release his hundredth album at age 72
PEOPLESir Cliff Richard has used a candid appearance on an Australian talk show to address long-running speculation about his sexuality

Sport
Lukas Podolski celebrates one of his two goals in Arsenal's win over Hull

Arsenal strengthened their grip on a top-four finish with a straightforward 3-0 win over Hull City.

Arts & Entertainment
Quentin Tarantino, director
arts + ents Samuel L Jackson and Michael Madsen have taken part in a reading of Quentin Tarantino’s axed follow-up to Django Unchained.
News
The speeding train nearly hit this US politican during a lecture on rail safety
news As the saying goes, you have to practice what you preach
Sport
Mercedes Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton of Britain (front) drives ahead of Red Bull Formula One driver Daniel Ricciardo of Australia during the Chinese F1 Grand Prix at the Shanghai International circuit
sport Hamilton captured his third straight Formula One race with ease on Sunday, leading from start to finish to win the Chinese Grand Prix

Arts & Entertainment
Billie Jean King, who won the women’s Wimbledon title in 1967, when the first colour pictures were broadcast
tv
News
Snow has no plans to step back or reduce his workload
mediaIt's 25 years since Jon Snow first presented Channel 4 News, and his drive shows no sign of diminishing
Life & Style
food + drinkWhat’s not to like?
Voices
Clock off: France has had a 35‑hour working week since 1999
voicesThere's no truth to a law banning work emails after 6pm, but that didn’t stop media hysteria
Arts & Entertainment
Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones now
tvMajor roles that grow with their child actors are helping them to steal the show on TV
Arts & Entertainment
Kingdom Tower
architecture
Life & Style
Lana Del Rey, Alexa Chung and Cara Delevingne each carry their signature bag
fashionMulberry's decision to go for the super-rich backfired dramatically
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Apprentice IT Technician

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is a company that specializ...

1st Line Technical Service Desk Analyst IT Apprentice

£153.75 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company is an innovative outsourcin...

1st Line Helpdesk Engineer Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: This company has been providing on site ...

Sales Associate Apprentice

£150.00 per week: QA Apprenticeships: We've been supplying best of breed peopl...

Day In a Page

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

A History of the First World War in 100 moments

A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

Cannes Film Festival

Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

The concept album makes surprise top ten return

Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
10 best baking books

10 best baking books

Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

Jury still out on Pellegrini

Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

Mad Men returns for a final fling

The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit