Kremlin says Lebed threatening to quit

The Kremlin yesterday acted swiftly to counteract rumblings from Alexander Lebed, Russia's security chief, that he may quit after less than four months in high office - a move which would free him to work exclusively on his campaign to succeed Boris Yeltsin.

At the same time, Mr Yeltsin pointedly endorsed the former general's peace deal in Chechnya, singling it out for praise during a radio address to the nation made in an effort to prove to his carping army of critics that he is still in charge in Russia.

Mr Lebed, the Russian government's peace envoy to the war zone and the architect of the Chechen accord, had "fulfilled my instructions", said the president, who is in hospital awaiting a multiple coronary bypass operation later this year.

Such remarks signal a change of tack for Mr Yeltsin who has been increasingly frosty towards Mr Lebed since whisking him into the heart of the Kremlin in the hope of winning his 11m voters in the presidential elections in July. Mr Lebed's overt campaigning, and outspoken remarks - including a demand for the Interior Minister, Anatoly Kulikov, to be fired - have only served to increase the tension.

But, despite his praise, Mr Yeltsin's slow but clear six-minute address was also an attempt to reassert his authority after a fortnight in which Mr Lebed repeatedly challenged itYesterday, after the two men met for the first time in more than two months, the Kremlin issued a statement saying that Mr Lebed has threatened to quit, apparently because he was angered over an appointment to a committee handling senior military posts, but Mr Yeltsin urged him to stay on. Whether this was accurate was unclear.

On Wednesday, Mr Lebed hinted at his departure during a speech to the Russian lower house of parliament, or State Duma, during which he was heckled by shouts of "traitor" from MPs. Unlike most of their electorate, they see the deal as a sell-out to the rebels which will lead to the republic's secession. More than 90 parliamentarians have signed a letter to the consitutional court, accusing Mr Lebed of exceeding his powers.

Although Mr Lebed told them that his mandate as Chechen peace envoy was largely carried out, it is uncertain whether he was seriously contemplating resignation (his press office was keen to quash the suggestion). As one of the three most powerful men in the country, he has tangible powers, wide access to the media, and the ability to raise big money - crucial tools in his battle to become president, which he would be loathe to forfeit.

Yet staying within the Yeltsin administration for too long could also damage his prospects. The Chechen deal is still highly precarious, although the separatists' leader, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, and the Russian prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, pushed on with the process by signing a "joint declaration of principles" in Moscow yesterday.

Thousands of workers across the nation are staging stoppages, hunger strikes, after going unpaid for months. And the general's other main mission, that of crushing the country's rampant corruption, is going to be extremely hard to fulfil, not least because it has penetrated deep into the upper echelons of power.

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