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`Third man' courted as the king-maker

Alexander Lebed does not look much like a Juliet. An ex-boxer, he has the scarred face of a fighter, complete with a badly broken nose. His voice is so deep it sounds like a distant earthquake. In fact, his only unintimidating feature is his name, which translates as "swan".

Yesterday, however, the two-star general and former paratrooper found himself with two Romeos. Boris Yeltsin and Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist candidate for the presidency, were pursuing his hand after he confounded the pollsters by getting an estimated 15 per cent of the vote in the first round of the Russian presidential elections on Sunday.

Although he failed to qualify for the two-man run-off, his surprising performance has given him a valuable dowry. Mr Yeltsin and Mr Zyuganov want his support, and they are prepared to barter. The Communist leader said he wanted him to join his coalition.

After a meeting with the President yesterday, the most likely outcome was that the 46-year-old general would be offered a senior job by Mr Yeltsin which he would accept. It marks an astonishing reversal of fortune. Six months ago, his short political career seemed to be fizzling out after his party, the Congress of Russian Communities, bombed in the parliamentary elections with less than 5 per cent of the vote.

Matters seemed to be getting worse this year when talks broke down to form a united democratic front, or "third force", with the liberal economist, Grigory Yavlinksy, and renowned eye surgeon, Svyatoslav Fyodorov, to run for the presidency. No one could agree on who would be boss. But Sunday's result proved beyond doubt that General Lebed is on the rise again.

The general first came to prominence in 1992 when, as commander of the 14th Army, he successfully ended fighting between the federal forces and Russian-backed separatists in Moldova. He went on to quit his commission following a row with the unpopular Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev.

His popularity is rooted in his brand of Russian nationalism, and a reputation for toughness and incorruptibility. To Russians, weary of crime and chaos, he stands for paryadok - order.

He is not a liberal, but nor is he a hard-liner, even though he can occasionally be mistaken for one. He does not, for example, seek the restoration of the Soviet Union, even voluntarily, unlike many of those in Mr Zyuganov's entourage of communists and nationalists.

"I am not a dreamer," he told the Independent earlier this year, "The Soviet Union died. The person who is not sorry about its destruction has no heart. But the person who dreams of restoring it has no brains."

Although he likes to refer to himself as "an iron fist" on law and order, he wears velvet gloves when the discussion turns to free speech and human rights. A free press is "a necessary part of the democratic process"; jury trials, which are still at an experimental stage in Russia, are a good thing; he favours the death penalty.

Only occasionally is there a glimpse of murkier depths. Russian politicians often start to chew on their lips when you mention Stalin, not least because they know that the dictator remains an idol among many potential voters. It may be that the general's remarks have more to do with strategy than heartfelt admiration. None the less, they still place him in the same category as some of the more virulent colleagues of Mr Zyuganov.

"Stalin is dead," the general told me. "Before he died he became a part of history. What kind of part is a different question. But, whether it was negative or positive, nothing can be changed ... But I very much respect, in principle, a person who can start something and carry it through to the finish."

It is a point he frequently makes to his audiences. The general has, in the past, spoken admiringly of the former Chilean dictator, General Augusto Pinochet, although he has long since distanced himself from such sentiments.

These days, as he manoeuvres into a position to run for president in four years' time, his rhetoric is more carefully chosen. Not long ago, he described Nato as "a big drunken hooligan in the kindergarten - the only grown up who he thinks he can do what he wants".

Exactly what job General Lebed will be offered by Mr Yeltsin is still unclear. His military background makes him a possible replacement for General Grachev, whose blunders over Chechnya and mishandling of military reforms has long made him a candidate for the axe. But he may want more.

In addition, the problems that are likely to attend Mr Yeltsin's plans to end conscription, and the continuing Chechen conflict, make it a politically perilous post. A man with General Lebed's presidential ambitions may want a safer nook in which to wait until Mr Yeltsin's health fails, or the next election in 2000.

It has long been rumoured that the Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, will depart from government soon, although the general would make an improbable successor. He is not a professional manager or an economics expert, and is unlikely to want to run the risk of becoming - as Mr Chernomyrdin has - the President's occasional whipping boy.

A more likely solution was suggested yesterday by Alexander Shokhin, a member of the President's campaign team, who suggested that a job should be specially created for him - possibly first deputy prime minister in charge of the security agencies, combined with secretaryship of the powerful Security Council.