Old bruiser set to give Yeltsin a bloody nose

As the fledgling `Third Force' group gathers strength, alarm bells ring in the Kremlin. Phil Reeves reports
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Moscow - Anyone who asks General Alexander Lebed about the injuries he received during his boxing career is likely to be treated to one of the more disturbing stunts to be performed by a public figure.

He places his thumb on his nose and presses hard. As its bone structure was smashed in a fight, it crumples, making his battered profile entirely flat but for a ridge of bushy eyebrows. The general proudly shows off this trick as proof that he was a serious combatant, willing to get hurt in order to triumph. "What kind of fighter is it that doesn't get injured?" he asked, with the same unnerving glare that Mike Tyson uses to mesmerise his prey.

He does not need to spell out his larger meaning, which is that he wants Russians to believe that he brings the same qualities - courage and purposefulness - to the political arena.

Four months ago, the reserve general was one of the most widely discussed figures in Russian politics. Almost everyone expected his party, the Congress of Russian Communities, to do well in December's parliamentary elections; pundits predicted that he would be a strong candidate in the presidential elections this June. But, the party crashed, winning less than 5 per cent of the vote.

It became clear the party was damaged by a personality feud between General Lebed and its co-leader, Yuri Skokov. Overnight, the general lost his pin-up boy status, and it looked as if Russians would no longer be treated to endless television interviews in which they marvelled as much at his astonishingly low voice as his politics.

Until now. With only a few weeks to go before the first round of the presidential poll, General Lebed is preparing to enter the ring again. He has declared his candidacy, and has revealed he is likely to be part of a new group called "Third Force", a coalition aimed at sweeping up the anti-Yeltsin, anti-Communist vote.

Although the group is in embryonic form, its leaders are also expected to include Svyatoslav Fyodorov, a veteran politician whose skills as an eye-surgeon made him a national celebrity. Significantly, there is also talk that it has recruited the liberal economist, Grigory Yavlinsky, whose Yabloko party came fourth last December, but who has been slipping in the polls.

The group's plans will be under close scrutiny in the Kremlin, where potential vote-stealers are regarded with alarm. Opinion surveys show President Yeltsin's popularity rising; a Moscow Times / CNN poll had him in second place with 14 per cent, behind the Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov's 19.1 per cent.

If the trend continues, the President should make it into a run-off, giving him a good chance of retaining power. But there remains a chance that the anti-communist vote could be split between Mr Yeltsin and another party, threatening his chances of making it to the second round.

This is not a prospect which appears to disturb General Lebed, who claims to be after the middle-of-the road - neither "red nor white" - electorate. "There are lots of people who wouldn't support either the left or the right," he told the Independent. "They are not radicals, but believe in common sense . . . They are the Third Force."

He said he had "no fears" of a split vote, arguing that the parliamentary election demonstrated that the left wing has about 25 per cent of the vote, while the right has about 15 per cent. "Some 60 per cent of the votes lie in between. I'm working for them."

Third Force's political agenda is likely to be based on broad themes such as improved living standards, not least because its leaders' ideologies differ. General Lebed, for example, is a moderate nationalist, with a scattering of hard-line tendencies, including a refusal (mindful of the prejudices of the public) to condemn Stalin.

Dr Fyodorov is an exponent of "people's capitalism" - an economy based on joint-stock companies in which all employees own shares and have equal voting rights, plus widespread private land ownership. The 3,500 employees at his eye institute in Moscow are paid a share of the profits rather than a salary, an incentive scheme that has amassed enough wealth for the institute to allow it to buy a big dacha-dotted stretch of the Moscow River, complete with restaurants, a yacht club and a stable of Arabian horses.

Once launched, the group would have a long road to travel, and little time. But all three men enjoy enough popularity in Russia to arouse attention in political circles; and together have the support of about 10 per cent of those surveyed by the Moscow Times and CNN. The general says that they would ultimately field only one candidate - the one who leads the polls.

Any party that assembles three such veterans under one banner is worth watching - on the off-chance that the general, with his men, will give Mr Yeltsin a nose as damaged as his own.