Yeltsin's new ally reveals his darker side



With less than a week before the run-off which will determine whether he stays in the Kremlin, Boris Yeltsin may rue the speedy way he lavished power on Alexander Lebed in the hope of winning over the former general's supporters. Mr Lebed is showing signs of being a liability.

Yesterday, while addressing a meeting of Cossacks, he said Russian religious sects, including Mormons, were "mould and scum" which had been "artificially brought into our country with the purpose of perverting, corrupting, and ultimately breaking up our state".

Such "foul sects", he continued, must be outlawed because they posed "a direct threat to Russia's security". The country must defend its "established, traditional religions" - namely, Russian Orthodoxy, Islam and Buddhism. Noticeably, he omitted Judaism.

Such intolerance from a leading politician would have caused an outcry in the West. But in Russia such views, especially among the nationalists Lebed was addressing, are not thought remarkable

Yet, even if he was playing politics - sounding off in the hope of winning votes - Mr Lebed was guilty of bad tactics. If Mr Yeltsin is to beat the Communist leader, Gennady Zyuganov, he needs to attract the votes of 5.5 million people who voted for the liberal economist Grigory Yavlinksy in the first round. Mr Lebed, a moderate on most other fronts, yesterday gave them a good reason not to bother voting at all.

His unpredictability and political inexperience is undoubtedly worrying the Kremlin, and raises the possibility that his wings will be clipped after the election. It may help explain why Mr Yeltsin's energetic campaign appears to be ending in a whimper. The President was to have been on a trip yesterday, but he decided to remain in Moscow; mindful, no doubt, of the need to keep an eye on his protege.

Yesterday's performance was not Mr Lebed's first bout of excitable behaviour since becoming the secretary of the Security Council. Last week he accused five generals of plotting a coup after the firing of the Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev. He subsequently toned down the allegations - although four of the officers were sacked. Whatever the truth of the matter, this is scarcely the kind of indecision one would expect from a security chief at his level.

This and other episodes may be part of a larger development; as the presidential race draws to a close, the Kremlin is moving closer towards Mr Zyuganov's camp. Mr Lebed yesterday supported the idea of a coalition government - an idea, albeit different in form, first suggested by the Communist leader.

And, after vilifying the Communists for months, Mr Yeltsin said he was "ready for dialogue and co-operation with all those for whom the fate of Russia is a top priority", including "honest Communists".

The question is whether this is just vote-seeking posturing, or whether they will really work in unison after polling day.