Lebed's rapid ascent to power triggers alarm

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Those of his opponents who worry about the authoritarian instincts of Alexander Lebed, the new power within the Kremlin, will take little comfort from the latest events in the aftermath of last week's re-election of Boris Yeltsin. The President has pressed ahead with plans to widen the scope of the Security Council, which the retired general runs, allowing it oversight of issues as diverse as economic espionage, defence, foreign policy, and law and order.

His move coincided with a separate decision to place his new protege in charge of supervising a crackdown on the mafia and on official corruption in Moscow, the scene of a mysterious bombing yesterday in which five people were injured when a package blew up on a trolleybus during the rush hour. The plan includes provisions for more police, doubling the pay of judges, more jails, and lavish gifts for informers.

Mr Yeltsin, who is grappling with ill health, has been under pressure from General Lebed to increase the Security Council's powers ever since ushering the general into the heart of the Kremlin after his strong performance in the first round of presidential elections last month. It now appears, much to the alarm of General Lebed's rivals, that he is getting his way.

The President has signed a decree which redefines the power of the council. Until now, it was an advisory body made up of Russia's most powerful office holders, notably in defence and security. Although the document is couched in vague terms, details have emerged confirming that its powers will be significantly increased, as will those of General Lebed - its secretary and national security adviser to the president.

The council will, for example, prepare proposals on introducing states of emergency and economic sanctions, as well as carrying out a more orthodox role overseeing and streamlining Russia's sprawling state security and defence apparatus. These will be passed on to Mr Yeltsin, who has the power to implement them by presidential decree - without reference to the weak Russian parliament.

Further light was cast by General Lebed himself yesterday, who revealed that the council would have four new departments of: "economic security, defence security, public security and information security". Its brief would include coordinating the security services - at present, branches of the former KGB, the police, and the military are separately run, and at times are at loggerheads - and developing domestic, foreign and military policy. It would have the power to establish new security organisations; overall, "the spectrum of issues, tasks and functions facing Russia's Security Council has substantially expanded", he said.

So, it seems, have his own. General Lebed, who answers only to the President, said his job would include advising the President on "the punishment of the leaders of federal power bodies responsible for national security". He will supply the President with information about the candidates for the country's top posts. He claims he has already been advising the Foreign Minister, Yevgeny Primakov; he is even planning to go to Chechnya, where the chances of peace were yesterday dealt another blow with the death in a landmine explosion of a Russian general.

General Lebed's astonishingly rapid ascent to power is causing deepening tensions within the Kremlin, not least with the Russian Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, whose position as the second most powerful figure in the country appears to have been abruptly usurped.

It has also triggered a ferocious row within the top brass of the Russian military over the next Minister of Defence, yielding a storm of allegations and counter-accusations about corruption. And it has prompted concerns among his more liberal-leaning critics that, if Mr Yeltsin's health collapses, the general will take control of the reins of power, handing the ailing President whatever decrees the virtually autonomous Security Council sees fit.