Lebed sizes up Yeltsin's shoes

Russian roulette: The country's most popular politician may yet turn out to have feet of clay
Click to follow
The Independent Online
As Russia's parliamentarians gathered yesterday for the first day of the new term, one certainty shone brightly in the corridors of their otherwise shadowy, intrigue-ridden world: while Boris Yeltsin nurses his damaged heart in the run-up to his operation, a presidential race is already under way among those who hope to fill his shoes.

Leading the field, evidently untroubled by the fact that his boss is not only alive but should - according to his doctors - make a full recovery, is Alexander Lebed, the popular ex-paratrooper general whom Mr Yeltsin catapulted into power less than four months ago.

"It's clear what he is up to," said Alexei Podberiozkin, a leading economic adviser to the Communists, shortly before Mr Lebed delivered a speech about Chechnya to the Duma, or lower house, to scattered heckling, "He doesn't even try to hide it himself.

"Lebed understands that to become president you need the support of big money, or a political structure, a party. He is busy building a party. There are some rich people - new Russians and big banks - who are eager to support him."

A glance at Mr Lebed's performance over the past two weeks is evidence enough that the general has hit the campaign trail with all the subtlety of one of the tanks he used to command. Few days pass without an addition to the pile of outrageous Lebedisms, causing knitted brows in the West, which is unsure whether his tub-thumping is merely vote-getting rhetoric, or whether he means what he says.

This week he warned Nato that if it attempts to expand without Russian agreement it will be met by missiles; he also declared his approval of Alexander Lukashenko, the President of Belarus, who wants a new constitution giving him totalitarian powers, which he would use to further his plans to reunite with Russia.

Earlier, he suggested that Mr Yeltsin should hand over power until he is completely recovered from his heart ailment; he has characterised the Crimean port of Sevastopol as Russian, upsetting the Ukrainians; he has warned that the Russian army is on the brink of an armed uprising; he has held a high- profile press conference marking his first 100 days in office, while the President languishes in bed; and he has struck up links with General Alexander Korzhakov, Mr Yeltsin's former chief henchman who urged the President to cancel this summer's elections.

In a political sideshow that is certain to be as gripping as any that Russia's wild mainstream politics has to offer, General Korzhakov is running in Mr Lebed's former seat in the military city of Tula. Interfax reported yesterday that his likely opponent would be General Pavel Grachev, the former defence minister, and arch-rival of Mr Lebed.

Scant though it is, the evidence from polls suggests that Mr Lebed has become by far the most popular man in the country since his appointment as Secretary of the Security Council. Even his political enemies admit that the peace deal in Chechnya was greeted with huge relief by most Russians, who are sick of sending young men to die. But memories are short. Other candidates are beginning to manoeuvre. And Mr Lebed is accident-prone.

Last week, his office denied that he ever gave an interview published in the Daily Telegraph in which he advocated economic sanctions against Germany and the US if Nato expanded, although the report appears authentic. Before that, he allowed himself to be photographed brandishing a dagger, clad in a Chechen cape and hat. And before that, he was backtracking hastily after calling Mormons "mould and scum".

His opponents will be watching his rise with alarm, but not despair. They know a man who makes so many mistakes is by no means unbeatable.

The wit and wisdom of the general

n "Russia has something with which oppose Nato's enlargement. They're rusty, but they're missiles all the same". (To Russian journalists, 1 October)

n "During the 100 days which I have been in my present post, I have not worked out how decisions are made in this country." (to press conference, 26 September)

n "Let there be no mistake. German and American industrial interests in Russia will suffer directly as a result of [Nato] enlargement plans. We will find ways to hit the proponents of this policy where it hurts ... our market is exploding. There will be other investors." (to Daily Telegraph, published 24 Sept - but denounced as a fraud)

n On Germany's role in Nato and EU enlargement: "Is this the work of the post-unification policy-makers, building a Fourth Reich?" (as above)

n On Russia's response, if the US launched a missile attack as it did against Iraq. "We have nothing to lose. We have no pain threshold. So, think it over gentlemen." (to journalists, 25 September)