Gruff hero of Afghanistan wins hearts of the nostalgic

Russian elections: Among the dispossessed and disillusioned, support grows for general who sees the positive side of Stalin

He was a perfect warm-up man for a general: fast-talking, crisp haircut and smart as a button in a black suit and tie. Just the ticket to work up a lather among a crowd of provincial Russians, gathered in a public hall to seek a messiah to solve their economic woes, and restore their lost sense of national pride.

The audience had been promised Alexander Lebed, the retired army officer who is running for a nationalist party widely tipped to do well in this month's parliamentary elections. General Lebed - usually a strict disciplinarian - was late. So they turned their attention to the pitch man instead.

Did the party, the Congress of Russian Communities, allow non-Russians as members, a man asked from the floor of the packed hall. The aide allowed a lemon-segment smile to spread across his face. "I can tell you one thing," he said, "there isn't one black in our party." Contentment rippled from the gallery to the stage.

Try as he may, General Lebed will have an uphill task persuading liberal analysts that his party - or at least its followers - is no more than a centre-left patriotic organisation.

True, most of the time he occupies the centre ground, rumbling on about the importance of law and order, decrying the folly of the costly war in Chechnya and arguing the need to help the 25 million Russians stranded outside the country by the break-up of the Soviet Union. He says he believes in a free press and - rare, this, for a two-star Russian general - a small, all-professional army.

But every now and then there is a glimpse of something else. His warm- up man had supplied one such insight to the audience of pensioners, war veterans and ordinary working Russians in Kaluga, an industrial city two hours' drive south of Moscow.

Less than half an hour later, the 46-year-old general provided another. He did not tell the crowd that he wholeheartedly approved of Stalin, but he did say he respected the way Stalin set himself a goal and completed it. There were no protests.

This may be nothing more than campaign rhetoric, a celebrity soldier playing to a crowd of small-town Russians, but it works. For if there is a golden boy among the politicians from the 43 parties running for the election on 17 December, it is Alexander Lebed. Polls suggest he is the most popular leader in Russia.

General Lebed (the name means "Swan") is a former commander of the Fourteenth Army in Moldova, from which he resigned after using his tanks to protect Russian-led separatists. The only thing more impressive than his subsequent popularity is his baritone voice, which seems to emanate from the soles of his impeccably polished black shoes. "You need to be strong. I have a hand that can be made into an iron fist," he thundered.

Polls show that his party, which is led by Yuri Skokov, the former head of Boris Yeltsin's Security Council, and Sergei Glazyev, a respected economist, is among the handful of blocs that are likely to emerge strongly in the elections to the Duma. It seems especially popular in the army, worn down by miserable pay and conditions and the Chechen war. To military eyes, General Lebed embodies the ideal of a strong leader: a hero of the Afghan war, ex-paratrooper and former boxer. He may even draw support away from their other heart-throb, the ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

The key question is whether the party will do well enough to allow General Lebed to mount a presidential challenge. He told the crowd in Kaluga that he is ready to run, although he has not decided whether to do so.

For over an hour the audience listened to him, a ram-rod figure in a black suit and V-necked jumper who punctuated his speech with wry jokes. Afterwards, as they stood wrapped in furs against -5C temperatures, most seemed won over.

"He is a very intelligent, honest, brave, and clever man," said Sacha Tyumacuan, a 65-year-old professor. "I think he's a future president."

Galina Ivanovna, a pensioner, was still more entranced: "He has a strong fist," she enthused. "If he does everything he says he's going to, he will change our lives." There's a slim chance she could be right.

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