The fall of Lebed: a tragi-comedy in five acts

Phil Reeves in Moscow charts the plots and plotters as the struggle to succeed Yeltsin moves out of the wings on to centre stage
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On the evening after he was sacked as Russia's security chief, Alexander Lebed went to the theatre. The Death of Ivan the Terrible was playing, a story of the skulduggery and intrigue that swept through the 16th-century Russian court when the aging tsar was dying. "The situation in our country is exactly the same," Lebed declared, as he left Moscow's Maly Theatre.

He has a point. The latest outburst of feuding between Russia's ruling clans, triggered by President Yeltsin's illness, reveals an ugly power struggle that can match much that history has to offer. Call it what you like. The Revenger's Tragedy, perhaps?

King Lear? There's even a touch of Dr Faustus. Here's a resume:

Act I: The Radisson-Slavyanskaya, a flashy hotel in central Moscow. 11 October.

The curtain rises on General Alexander Korzhakov, Boris Yeltsin's former bodyguard, confidant and carousing partner who was sacked in June, addressing a packed press conference. The ex-KGB man fears for his life.

The room is agog as he provides the latest instalment in a saga of Kremlin intrigue which embraces the National Sports Foundation (a shadowy official fund), and allegations of embezzlement, blackmail and assassination plots hatched by several of the country's most powerful businessmen. Lurking in the background is Boris Fyodorov, a former foundation head, who is recovering from being stabbed and shot by contract hitmen. Mr Fyodorov has accused the general and another ex-fund official, Colonel Valery Streletski, of trying to extort $40m (pounds 25m).

The chief target of General Korzhakov's wrath is the Kremlin's grey cardinal, Anatoly Chubais, the presidential chief-of-staff who controls access to Mr Yeltsin alongside the president's younger daughter, Tatyana. He accuses Mr Chubais of running "an unconstitutional regency" while the sick Boris Yeltsin is hidden away in a sanatorium, preparing for a heart operation.

"I have seen a lot and I know a lot," said the general, who prides himself on his stock of compromising secrets about Russia's elite. "I have seen how people climbed the ladder, the intrigues, the wild parties, a lot of things that happened abroad."

Moscow's chattering classes are barely able to contain their excitement. There have been signs of an alliance between General Lebed, whom Mr Chubais has been trying to remove from power, and General Korzhakov. Is this a counterattack on Lebed's behalf?

Act II: Tula, a military city 100 miles south of Moscow, and Lebed's former constituency. 13 October.

Like a conquering emporer, General Lebed is standing on a podium in the central square, at a ceremony marking his adopted home town's 850th anniversary. Suddenly, he summons a man from the audience to the stage. It's General Korzhakov, who is planning to run for the parliamentary seat here that General Lebed has vacated. "I have found a worthy replacement," says General Lebed. The alliance between the two is confirmed. The crowd chants "Thank you for Chechnya" - a reference to the peace that General Lebed brokered in the republic, ending 20 months of war.

Interval: three days.

Act III: Scene I: A government office in Moscow. 16 October.

The curtain rises to reveal that it is the turn of the Interior Minister, Anatoly Kulikov, to address the press. As usual, the stocky four-star general is wearing a medal-bedecked uniform. The assembled crowd anticipates an attack on General Lebed, as the two men have been at loggerheads for weeks.

Only a day ago, they locked horns at a closed session of Russia's parliament on Chechnya. General Kulikov, whose ministry runs the police and special military units, is infuriated by General Lebed's peace deal, which he views as a capitulation to terrorists, and a dangerous step towards the republic's seccesion.

But no one is prepared for the ferocity of today's assault. The minister alleges that General Lebed - who has made no secret of his desire to rule Russia - has been planning to seize power by force, aided by 1,500 Chechen fighters. He also accuses Lebed of trying to set up a Russian Legion of 50,000 special troops, on the lines of the French Foreign Legion, to be under his control.

The alleged purpose of this army? "Identification, psychological treatment, isolation, recruitment or discrediting or - I stress - liquidation of political and military leaders and the leaders of extremist, terrorist and separatist movements as well as other organisations," says the general, reading from a document, "liquidation of the members of other organisations whose activities threaten national security. You can judge for yourself how many people can meet that description."

The coup allegations are wild and unsubstantiated. The performance has all the hallmarks of Mr Chubais and his camp. It is another attempt to oust Lebed. Journalists convey the news to a perplexed Russia and beyond.

Scene II: Moscow, 19 October.

The Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, has convened a top-level security meeting to discuss the Kulikov claims. Mr Chernomyrdin dismisses the coup charges, but says there is "some truth" in the Russian Legion allegations (General Lebed later admits documents were drawn up, but says he never signed them). He also says General Lebed has "Bonapartist ambitions". A showdown is now only a question of time.

Act IV: A studio in Yeltsin's health spa outside Moscow. 17 October.

Looking slightly healthier than many expected, though puffy-faced and shaky, the president is in a dark suit, recording a 6pm television broadcast to the nation. In a voice full of emotion, he says he can no longer tolerate the naked ambition and fractiousness of General Lebed. "It looks as though some kind of election race is under way. The election won't be held until the year 2000 ... such a situation can no longer be tolerated."

He continues: "There has to be a united team; the team should pull together, work like a fist. But now ... Lebed is splitting the team apart and is carrying out a number of moves which he did not agree with the president. This is totally unacceptable. Korzhakov has been sacked and he [Lebed] took him to Tula to present him as though he were his successor. Well, he could have found a better one. They are both birds of a feather."

On air, Mr Yeltsin falteringly signs a decree firing General Lebed as secretary of the Security Council and national security adviser. Four months after being given high office to boost Mr Yeltsin's re-election efforts, General Lebed is out; Mr Chubais has got his way.

Act V: The hot and crowded offices of the news agency, Interfax, two hours after Yeltsin's broadcast.

General Lebed is addressing the press. He does not look remotely distressed. "I did not cheat, I worked," he says. "I did all I could in that post to stop the [Chechen] war, to organise the reform in the army, to organise struggle against crime. But if the law enforcement bodies are headed by people who, to put it mildly, have a corrupt core, this is a senseless fight. The entire system should be replaced."

Undaunted, he will be "preparing for future elections". His appetite for the presidency is unslaked; once, he even seems to refer to himself as a "tsar". But he professes sadness over Chechnya, where separatist leaders have been pressing on with plans to form a provisional government and hold elections in January.

He is clear about whom he blames for his ousting. He does not attack "the sick old man" Mr Yeltsin. In a remark that has echoes of Hamlet's Denmark, he cites Mr Chubais as head of a "rotten system of regency". After only four months in power, the former paratrooper general is dispatched into political exile.

Lights. Curtain.

(Don't miss the sequel - "The Return of Alexander Lebed".)