Can Lebed Save His Legacies?
President Boris Yeltsin's abrupt dismissal of Gen. Alexander Lebed as national security chief may help bring order to the three-ring circus of Russia's government. His leaving is a sign that the most sober and Western-oriented of the senior leadership have won the day, perhaps finally gathering enough power to fulfill the promise of Mr. Yeltsin's July election victory.
But Mr. Lebed left two legacies that will continue to shape Russia's political scene:
1. A political style that regularly sought to appeal from the narrow insider political arena to the wider court of public opinion - and to make this opinion a factor in his political rise.
2. The cease-fire he negotiated in Chechnya.
Lebed's populism did not mix with the current leadership. He could not be domesticated, he regularly aired the Kremlin's dirty linen, and he openly touted his presidential ambitions.
The general will continue to make a nuisance of himself from outside, but this seems a minor liability for his opponents compared to the havoc he might have wrought during Yeltsin's surgery and recovery. Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and Chief of Staff Anatoly Chubais are preparing the ship of state for the stormy time to come.
Lebed himself will surely be more comfortable on the outside. His big test is whether he can find the financial and organizational backing to match his current popularity. His chances improve if Yeltsin's health hastens elections. His chances are less bright if Yeltsin reclaims his place at the center
As to Lebed's second legacy, he understood better than anyone else that Chechnya and conflicts like Chechnya remain Russia's Achilles' heel. They must be settled for Russia to move forward. Extracting Russia from the Chechen conflict is every bit as important as economic or political reform.
To obtain the August cease-fire agreement, Lebed made two great concessions: agreeing to Russian troop withdrawals that would place the rebels at a political advantage in southern Chechnya, and postponing any decision on Chechnya's future for five years.
Lebed made these concessions because he believed the cost of delay for Russia was much higher.
The accord has numerous high-level critics in Russia. The Chechen side viewed Lebed as a man who would fight for it in Moscow. Lebed did just that. Moreover, Russian troop withdrawals as a result of the agreement have permanently altered the situation on the ground. The test of those who have won the victory over Lebed is whether they understand these facts.
Lebed's political rivals cynically believe that a collapse of the cease-fire would be a small price to pay for control of the Kremlin. But they are wrong. Nothing has happened to make Russian forces more likely to win a renewed encounter with the Chechen fighters than their previous ones. A new round of fighting would almost certainly yield a situation far less favorable to Russia than Lebed's framework agreement.
"A pauper country," Lebed stated recently, "cannot afford the luxury of fighting a war." By putting this insight into practice, he performed a valuable service to Yeltsin's government. The next few months are likely to place great demands on both Lebed's populism and his Chechen cease-fire. He will have to prove that both remain viable forces.
But the Russian leadership, if it is smart, will move to co-opt both legacies, making itself more responsive to the frustrations of ordinary Russians that Lebed sought to tap, and extricating itself from the Chechen morass. Only in this way will Russian leaders feel secure that they have responded to Lebed's challenge once and for all.
*Sherman W. Garnett is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.