MOSCOW — President Boris Yeltsin stepped abruptly back into the political fray yesterday to end increasingly vicious Kremlin power plays by sacking his national security chief, Alexander Lebed, who had become by far the most popular political figure in the country.
Only the day before, Russia's interior minister had accused Mr. Lebed of planning to seize power by force in a "creeping coup." Lebed denied the charge, but it was only the latest and most serious blow in the barefisted infighting in the Yeltsin Cabinet.
Speaking angrily and forcefully, Yeltsin sought to reassert control of what had become a battle to succeed him. "I cannot tolerate such a situation," Yeltsin said on national television, just before signing Lebed's dismissal. "I have to relieve General Lebed of his post."
Yeltsin said he had warned the tough-talking Lebed to work with other government officials, but that Lebed did not heed his request. "He made inadmissible mistakes, some of them harmful to Russia. There has to be a united team."
In an interview that immediately followed Yeltsin's announcement of Lebed's dismissal, Lebed told Echo Moscow radio that after a vacation he intended to "completely and fully engage in politics."
Chechnya peace deal uncertain
When questioned about the future of Chechnya, he said that events in the war-torn region will deteriorate and "the worst scenario" will develop. But now "this will be a matter for Russian mothers," he added.
Lebed cemented his political stardom in recent months by engineering a peace deal to end Russia's civil war in Chechnya. Indeed, his dismissal casts serious doubts about the future of the cease-fire in Chechnya, since Chechen rebel leaders have said that Lebed is the only Russian politician that they trust and will negotiate with.
But Lebed's very popularity, combined with his naked ambition, has made him extremely unpopular among Kremlin insiders. Lebed's fight with his chief rival, Interior Minister Gen. Anatoly Kulikov, took an alarming turn Thursday when his bodyguards clashed openly with plainclothes Interior Ministry agents whom they said had been following their boss. They detained and disarmed Gen. Kulikov's men before letting them go, Lebed's office said.
That incident followed Kulikov's allegation on Wednesday that Lebed was plotting a creeping coup while Yeltsin was hospitalized, using a private army and rebel Chechen gunmen to seize power.
Lebed shrugged off the charges, and said he would soon release evidence that Kulikov was personally responsible for mass murder while he commanded Russian troops in Chechnya.
The Kremlin, Lebed told reporters, was not big enough for both him and Kulikov and Yeltsin would have to choose between them. This was the second time he had thrown down such a challenge, and the President could not ignore it.
Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin called on Defense and Interior Ministry troops to "stay calm" during the war of words. But the danger was less of a coup, or of a military mutiny, than of a disintegration of the Russian government. As competing clans within the establishment resort to increasingly radical measures in their battle to succeed Yeltsin, many observers are concerned that the survival of the Russian government is at stake.
Although the president has warned would-be competitors "not to take my portrait down from the wall [in the Kremlin] prematurely," the mood among Moscow's political elite is not hopeful. Many believe that Yeltsin will either prove too weak to undergo the heart surgery his doctors say he needs, will not survive the operation, or will survive but without the necessary strength to rule the country.
Hotbed of intrigue in the Kremlin
Against that background, a conflagration of wild mutual accusations at the top levels of government, fueled primarily by rival ambitions, had threatened to consume the government's credibility.
Lebed's declared goal to become president conflicts with Mr. Chernomyrdin's similar plans - currently backed, it seems, by Anatoly Chubais. Though not a presidential challenger himself, Mr. Chubais has a great deal of influence due to his position as Yeltsin's chief of staff. Distrustful of Lebed, he is seen as anxious to keep the maverick politician in check.
Adding to the intrigue is the reemergence of Gen. Alexander Korzhakov to the forefront of political intrigue. The shadowy General Korzhakov is regarded as Mr. Chubais's nemesis from the days when he, Korzhakov, was Yeltsin's personal bodyguard. He enjoyed wide if unspecified powers in the Kremlin before he was fired at Chubais's behest.
Korzhakov has now formed an alliance with Lebed and threatened to reveal compromising material on his enemies that he gathered during his eleven years at Yeltsin's side. Yeltsin referred scathingly to this prospective political double act in his speech announcing Lebed's dismissal.
Kulikov, meanwhile, was clearly acting on behalf of wider forces in his assault on Lebed. State-controlled television news programs devoted much of their time to vilifying the national security adviser the night before he was fired.
Yeltsin's inability to keep a lid on this cauldron of intrigue had become painfully obvious this week: Kulikov launched his broadside only a day after the president's spokesman said that he had called on his security aides to stop their squabbling.