Lebed looks to Chechnya ceasefire to boost his career

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A fragile peace hung over Chechnya yesterday as Russian commanders and their separatist opponents met to hammer out details of a ceasefire that could help determine the fate of the Kremlin's volcanic new player, Alexander Lebed.

As President Boris Yeltsin mulled over Mr Lebed's latest eruption, a ferocious indictment of the Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov, the guns on the streets of Grozny were unusually silent, although there were reports that the Chechens had shot down a helicopter.

On Friday, Mr Lebed accused Mr Kulikov of being "one of the main culprits of the war" who despite being in charge of keeping order in the region had failed to stop two Chechen assaults on Grozny within six months.

Mr Yeltsin would have to choose between himself and Mr Kulikov, he said, as there was not room for "these two birds in the same nest". However, Mr Lebed denied that this apparent ultimatum was a threat to resign.

Mr Kulikov seems set to survive; the Interfax news agency said Mr Yeltsin had told him to stay. Although this appears to be a snub, Mr Lebed is a highly unorthodox politician and it is unclear how he will respond. What is certain is that he has adopted a high-risk strategy of consolidating his power base at the expense of other senior political figures. Although he has no ministry behind him, and little political experience, the former paratrooper appears to be unconcerned that he is daily increasing his list of enemies.

Mr Lebed knows that if he achieves a settlement in Chechnya - though the odds are against it - his reputation will receive a huge boost, placing him in a strong position to run for the presidency. If he fails his power base is likely to remain confined to his core support: the 11 million who voted for him in June; elements of the press, and the military rank-and-file.

In the shattered republic of Chechnya yesterday, both sides met to iron out details of a truce agreed on Saturday by the rebel chief-of-staff, Aslan Maskhadov, and the acting Russian commander, General Konstantin Pulikovsky.