MOSCOW — TEN months before presidential elections, Russians are already wondering aloud whether a bluff, gruff general will soon become a Russian De Gaulle - the strong, nationalist leader of postwar France - or a Russian Pinochet - the longtime military dictator of Chile.
Lt. Gen. Alexander Lebed, one of the nearest examples of a national hero in today's jaded Russia, has suddenly emerged as a very serious prospect for succeeding Boris Yeltsin as president.
In little more than two months, General Lebed has quit the Army, entered politics, adopted an existing nationwide political organization, formed alliances with well-known Moscow political veterans, and become by some measures the most popular presidential contender in Russia.
He is known better for his personal qualities than for his politics, a playing field on which he is a complete novice. But his personal qualities are attractive to many Russians. His backers are expecting to appeal especially to the disillusioned and dispirited voters who backed radical nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky in the last parliamentary election.
The blunt-spoken former boxer with the face of a mastiff on guard is a tough-talking political outsider converting success in another field into instant political credibility.
Officially, Lebed has become deputy chairman of a political movement called the Congress of Russian Communities. He is a candidate for the Duma, the Russian lower house of parliament, in December elections.
Unofficially, his eye is quite obviously on the next step - presidential elections planned for June 1996.
Lebed commanded the 14th Army sent to stop a civil war between Moldova's government forces and a small, heavily Russian breakaway region. His success there was, to the demoralized Russian military, something like the Grenada invasion to the post-Vietnam American forces - a very small but much-needed boost of confidence.
Lebed radiates personal authority and an incautious candor that Russians generally appreciate.
At a recent Moscow ceremony for soldiers lost in Chechnya, Lebed fended off persistent questions from reporters on Chechnya politics until he looked directly at a Russian journalist and uttered in a startling basso profundo, "I'm stressing again for the stupid ones, this is not the time and not the place" - leaving the press in obedient silence.
In some ways, Lebed is the Colin Powell of Russian politics - a military man who leads all presidential contenders in opinion surveys but who has yet to take a policy position on any controversial issue.
"People need dignity, and they sense that Russia and Russians get no respect," says Sergei Markov, a political scientist at the Carnegie Foundation in Moscow. So Lebed is very popular for criticizing Russian officials for searching for foreign aid, he says. "But maybe not so many people will support his ideas on the economy," Mr. Markov says.
"He's unformed politically. He says so himself," says Stephen Cohen, a Princeton University professor who recently spent several hours interviewing Lebed for New York public television. "He could develop in any number of directions. He's very much a political figure in the making."
Lebed's main strategy, however, will be to attack the current government as incompetent and corrupt. Many Russian commentators see that tactic as a strong one.
When the Yeltsin government said it would begin withdrawing the 14th Army from Moldova, Lebed offered to resign in protest, arguing that the Russian troops would be leaving war in their wake and a huge stash of vulnerable weapons. Later this spring, Yeltsin ordered him to resign.
"People perceive Lebed as a man who sacrificed his military career to save a people," said commentator Sergei Gostyev recently in the newspaper Isvestia. "If power is unpopular, then the person wronged by it will be popular." Lebed, he adds, fits that bill perfectly.
In June, Lebed joined savvy veteran politician and former deputy prime minister Yuri Skokov, in the Congress of Russian Communities. The Congress is viewed as a moderate nationalist organization with chapters in nearly every election district in Russia. Last week, they were joined by Duma deputy Sergei Glaziev, a respected economist and senior leader of another political party. Mr. Skokov is sophisticated in the ways of Moscow politics, but Lebed has the charisma to win popular support.
Lebed will run for the Duma from Tula, a city several hours south of Moscow where Lebed once commanded a paratrooper division. His backers expect him to be a shoo-in there.
Many Tula voters are connected to the military. And although Lebed was sharply critical of the Chechnya campaign, he remains highly popular in the armed forces.
Regardless of political viewpoint, says one Navy lieutenant, "I guarantee you won't find a single Navy person who will say anything bad about General Lebed. He's a very respected officer."
And Lebed should immediately have a national impact. The first flyers that the Congress plans to print will show Lebed's picture shaking hands with the movement's other candidates over a text with Lebed saying, "I trust this person."
In recent independent polling by the Public Opinion Foundation matching Lebed against other potential candidates, he beat Yeltsin 38 percent to 8 percent.
He also beat out the second-most-popular candidate, democrat Grigory Yavlinsky, by 33 percent to 20 percent.
Polls are fickle measures so long before an election, but they indicate the general's potential appeal with his call for stronger state power and stronger defense of Russian people and culture.