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A Russian Politician to Reckon With

By S. Frederick Starr. S. Frederick Starr is a distinguished fellow at the Aspen Institute in Washington. / December 15, 1995

WHILE Americans watched Colin Powell come close to bidding for the presidency and then draw back, Russians were watching a former general of their own position himself as the most likely candidate to succeed Boris Yeltsin next year. And unlike General Powell, the charismatic Alexander Lebed seems to have no reverse gear.

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The 15 percent Mr. Lebed garners in polls may not sound like much, but it puts him squarely in the lead. In a one-on-one race against Mr. Yeltsin's prime minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, he would take 31 percent versus Mr. Chernomyrdin's 23 percent. Even the Communists' popular candidate, Gennady Zyuganov, hints that he would be comfortable serving as prime minister in a coalition government should Lebed gain the presidency in next June's balloting.

If electoral success hinges on the clarity and brevity of a candidate's message, Lebed is a winner. The Russian press, friend and foe alike, agree that he speaks directly to Russia's wounded pride. He supports the cause of the Russian ''colonials'' now living outside Russia in the newly independent states; he considers the collapse of the USSR a disaster and would like to renew the old links between Moscow and its neighbors; he warns the expansion of NATO could lead to World War III; he wants the government to regulate the economy more closely; and, above all, he would declare war on crime and corruption.

No image problem here! Lebed is the candidate of Russian patriotism, law, and order.

All this could spell trouble for the United States and Western Europe. A Lebed presidency could put at risk the two-year-old agreement on conventional weapons in Europe. It could force NATO to close ranks and rearm, at great cost to the US budget. Russian fears of foreign economic domination could lead to protectionist tariffs and taxes that would threaten billions in Western investments. And human rights violations by a zealous Lebed government could create the ''Cold Peace'' Yeltsin has warned of.

Is Lebed what he seems?

Whether or not events take this gloomy course will depend on Lebed himself. Is he really what he seems? Are we reading him right? Certainly much of his record lends support to grim prognostications. The 44-year-old Lebed was the USSR's hatchet man for several of the worst acts of repression directed against restive non-Russian republics. A tough ''special assignment'' unit under his command resorted to chemical weapons and shovels to kill dozens of demonstrators in Tbilisi, Georgia, in 1988. In 1990, he carried out a Chechnya-like operation against Azerbaijanis seeking independence from Moscow. After being promoted to lead the 14th Army in Moldova, Lebed did everything in his power to undermine the new government there, often acting in defiance of his superiors in the Kremlin. He now claims he was really trying to prevent corrupt officers from selling off weapons to Middle Eastern terrorists. Later, when Yeltsin confronted a mutinous parliament, he sided with the president. But as he watched the once-proud Soviet Army collapse around him, Lebed became a bitter critic of Yeltsin's new Russia.

If this were the whole picture, the best course for the US would be to distance itself from Lebed and prepare for the worst. But it is not the whole picture. Part of Lebed's appeal is that he is not a career politician. From the podium he often shoots from the hip. Yet he has also shown he is self-confident enough to revise his views in the face of evidence.

Take, for example, the Soviet operations in Georgia and Azerbaijan that he commanded. By March of this year he had concluded that these were both costly mistakes. ''Everything we tried to hold onto by force was lost,'' he rued. Lebed has also denounced Soviet intervention against Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1967, and Lithuania in 1991, not to mention Russia's ongoing military assault on Chechnya, which he has criticized in no uncertain terms. One reason that then-Minister of Defense Boris Gromov sacked Lebed this spring was that he refused an order to lead Russian forces intervening in Tajikistan's civil war. ''Why should a Russian general help one group of Tajiks kill another group of Tajiks?'' he asked. Why indeed?