A Russian Pinochet Waits In the (Very Distant) Wings
But General Lebed's Moldovan triumph probably won't translate into a Moscow coup
HE is, according to some observers, the next president of Russia. Or according to others, the next dictator, a Russian strongman who promises a zheleznaya ruka -- an ''iron hand'' -- to deal with the social ills spawned by Russia's flirtation with democracy. He is Alexander Lebed, a straight-talking lieutenant general and Afghan-war hero who commands Russian troops still stationed in the former Soviet republic of Moldova.Skip to next paragraph
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Over the last year, media in the region and in the West have featured numerous interviews with the general on a range of topics, from Russian foreign policy, to the fate of ethnic Russians in the ex-Soviet republics, to his own political ambitions. Like radical Russian nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the general always gives good copy. His unequivocal support for purging inept politicians in the Kremlin and his unabashed disdain for the principles of democracy have made a pilgrimage to Lebed's headquarters de rigueur for Western journalists.
With Boris Yeltsin's political future uncertain, Western governments have begun to place bets on likely successors. In the view of many, Lebed is pulling ahead of the pack. Opinion polls have confirmed that, especially within the military, the 44-year-old Lebed is considered one of Russia's most influential figures. Who might emerge in the post-Yeltsin power struggle is still too early to call. But conservatives such as Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, reformers centered around the economist Grigory Yavlinsky, and xenophobic radicals led by Mr. Zhirinovsky could all be overtaken by a leader who places political order before political ideology.
A decorated veteran of the Afghan conflict, Lebed rose to prominence during the anti-Gorbachev coup of August 1991. His cool-headed deception of the plotters and his skillful defense of the White House helped ensure the coup's failure. His close ties to another anti-coup hero, current Defense Minister Pavel Grachev, also guaranteed Lebed a place in the command structure of Russian forces after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
In 1992, Lebed, whose name means ''swan,'' alighted in Moldova, then in the throes of a violent conflict with pro-Russian separatists. As commander of Russia's 14th army, whose headquarters happened to be inside the separatist ''Dniester Republic,'' Lebed oversaw military operations designed to halt the fighting between Moldovan forces and Dniester irregulars. Lebed is now generally praised for pacifying a conflict that threatened to spill into Ukraine and Romania. What he managed to do in 1992 in Moldova, some Russian commentators argue, he should do today in the Russian Federation.
Anyone who has met Lebed can understand these sentiments. His headquarters in the Dniester ''capital'' of Tiraspol are a paragon of order, a tidy enclave in a city on the brink of economic collapse. To get to the general's office, one passes through a neatly painted courtyard and a phalanx of armed and disciplined subalterns.
For Lebed, disputes in Georgia and Tajikistan -- as well as the current war in Chechnya -- could be quickly resolved were Russia's spineless political leaders to observe what he has repeatedly called ''the Pinochet precedent,'' referring to the military takeover in Chile by Gen. Augusto Pinochet Ugarte in 1974.