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STRUGGLE FOR THE KREMLIN: Lebed's path beset with political traps

Road to power
Boris Yeltsin's sacking of Alexander Lebed has certainly brought the security man closer to fulfilling his burning ambition to be Russia's next president, but the road ahead is littered with tank traps which could easily bring his route march to a halt.

As the reserve general yesterday scanned the cratered political landscape after being abruptly jettisoned from the Kremlin by Mr Yeltsin's innermost coterie, he must surely have concluded that his position was strong, but not entirely secure.

No one disputes that Mr Lebed, with his strong military support, is the clear favourite to win an election if Mr Yeltsin dies or stands down from office in the near future. But his prospects are less assured if the President remains in office for any length of time - either by recovering from his pending heart-bypass operation, or as a remote and sickly figurehead, controlled by his chief-of-staff, Anatoly Chubais, and Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin.

Yesterday Mr Lebed dryly revealed he was planning a trip to the theatre in Moscow to see Ivan the Terrible, saying the play, whose plot drips with intrigue and assorted skulduggery, would help him learn how to rule the country. (This was presumably a jibe at the dark machinations of the Kremlin elite who brought about his sacking). But he first needs to learn how to win the nation's vote, given that he says he is committed to democratic elections.

Even before he was stripped of the secretaryship of the Security Council by Mr Yeltsin, he had become an opposition figure, hounding the government from the sidelines over the issues from which he stands to gain most - the Chechen war, military reform and the neglect of the army. He is sure to carry on doing so, sowing fears that he could destabilise the already angry and volatile military. "It is what everyone has feared for so long," said one western diplomat, "An exile politician of his stature could be the rallying point for disaffected military officers."

Yet he is not yet particularly well-equipped for a long campaign. He has no large financial backing, no significant party, and no guarantee of national media support - vital factors if he is to re-emerge from the political wilderness.

Funds from Russian big business may not prove difficult to attract, so long as his chances of power remain high, although it will probably require a political trade-off. Nor will he necessarily experience the complete freeze-out that Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist candidate in July's presidential election, experienced at the hands of Russia's national television companies.

Although they were manipulated by the Kremlin much of their censorship was self-imposed by journalists who were willing to compromise fairness in order to avert what they feared would be a Communist crack-down on free speech. If the Yeltsin administration's popularity continues to slide, then the mass media may be willing to switch horses.

Currying favour may not be easy, as he already has some powerful media enemies. Several Russian papers welcomed his firing - marking a change of tune from the broad approval that greeted his appointment. "He is an hysterical and inadequate politician," said Kommersant.

He also lacks a nationwide party infrastructure. Last week, three small political groups which support him formed a union which could provide him with an organisational framework. But Mr Lebed is not a particularly good organiser, preferring showmanship to paperwork. He is also a loner, who finds it difficult to forge alliances with other politicians without quarrelling.

Yet if these factors depress the general, then he can take heart from the experience of Boris Yeltsin. He, too, was dispatched into exile - in 1987 when he was dismissed from the Politburo by Mikhail Gorbachev. After four years he returned to humiliate the Soviet president, and take power. And who was the one man who rushed loyally to his side and stayed there during his hour of deepest isolation? The former presidential bodyguard, General Alexander Korzhakov, Mr Lebed's latest ally.