Boris Yeltsin'S lightning speed in luring "kingmaker" Gen. Alexander Lebed into his government has left his Communist rival grasping for more support to win Russia's presidency.
Mr. Yeltsin now has a strong chance of winning over the 14.8 percent of Russians who chose the maverick general in the first round of presidential elections June 16. And he is well-positioned for the crucial runoff vote against Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, which will take place sometime between June 30 and July 7.
Yeltsin seized the advantage when he issued a decree naming General Lebed, an Afghan war veteran, as his personal adviser on national security and the secretary of the powerful Security Council. Yeltsin also fired his unpopular but ever-loyal defense minister, Gen. Pavel Grachev, who is largely responsible for the conduct of the Chechen war.
Lebed's quick acceptance of the job threw the Communist-led opposition bloc onto the defensive. Mr. Zyuganov's allies held an emergency meeting June 18 to devise a runoff strategy to expand their support.
Because no candidate won 50 percent support in the first round of elections, a runoff must be held. In the first round, Yeltsin finished first with 35 percent, Zyuganov second with 32 percent, and Lebed third with 14.8 percent.
Lebed's unexpectedly strong showing has made his supporters the key to putting together a majority in the runoff. Some analysts believe that by bringing the general onto his team, Yeltsin has virtually assured himself of reelection.
"It's the end of the presidential campaign. It's over" for the Communists, says Andrei Piontkowski of the Center for Strategic Studies in Moscow.
The Communists "have a very limited electorate and very limited chances," adds Vyacheslav Nikonov, director the Kremlin Analytical Center, Yeltsin's personal think tank.
'Voters are not serfs'
But Zyuganov and his allies challenge that, questioning whether Lebed can deliver his vote to Yeltsin.
"Voters are not serfs," Zyuganov argued on June 17. "They cannot be inherited ... handed over by decision of a candidate."
If Yeltsin can count fairly confidently on the bulk of the 7.4 percent of voters who chose reformist Grigory Yavlinsky, and Zyuganov can bank on most of the 5.8 percent who backed radical nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Lebed's chunk of the electorate is especially valuable.
In a bid to extend its reach beyond traditional Communist boundaries, the Popular Patriotic Front that Zyuganov heads "has to show people the real coalition government" it is planning, "including Communists who are real professionals and non-Communists ... to give guarantees to the people that it is not orthodox Communists who are coming to power behind Zyuganov" argues one of Zyuganov's advisers, Alexei Podberyozkin.
In a bid to reach into the center of the Russian political spectrum, and to calm fears of radical change under his leadership, Zyuganov is even suggesting he would keep some members of the current government on.
"There are many competent and smart people in the government whom we would like to include in the government of popular trust," he told reporters.
"We have to change people's minds, to tell them not to worry about the future, about questions of property or privileges," says Vladimir Semago, a Communist deputy in the Duma (lower house of parliament). "We have to tell people that we are ready to satisfy everybody's ambitions."
But that message did not get through to the electorate during the first round, when Zyuganov failed to boost his vote much beyond its size at last December's Duma elections. Whether floating Lebed voters will be receptive now is unclear.
Mr. Nikonov, at the Kremlin, is the first to agree that little is known yet about who the voters are that made up the late-surging Lebed wave - or whom they will vote for in the second round. He believes many of them shifted to Lebed from liberal democrat Mr. Yavlinsky, who ran a little more poorly than in the past and earned 7 percent of the vote. This implies they would sooner shift to Yeltsin than Zyuganov in the runoff.
But many of Lebed's voters are highly critical of the Yeltsin regime - as the general himself has been - and some are of a more radical mindset than Zyuganov himself, according to Valentin Chikin, chief editor of Sovyetskaya Rossiya, a pro-Communist newspaper. Many Lebed voters want a tougher Russian leader than Yeltsin has been, he says. "Some thought that [Lebed] was Zyuganov with a drawn sword."
Lebed appears to have won over many voters who, at previous elections, supported Mr. Zhirinovsky, whose support slumped to less than 6 percent. To win over that part of the electorate - a group mistrustful of Communists but in search of a firm hand - Zyuganov "must show that he is the most patriotic and that he would be a strong leader," Chikin adds.
Lebed joined the Yeltsin team with his characteristically blunt lack of diplomacy. Of the Zyuganov and Yeltsin platforms, he said: "I faced two ideas, an old one which caused much bloodshed and a new one which is being carried out very poorly. I chose the new idea."
Lebed's price for Yeltsin
Part of his price, however, seems to have been the dismissal of General Grachev - the most unpopular minister in the Cabinet - from his post as defense minister. Grachev forced Lebed to resign as commander of the 14th Army last year after Lebed had criticized the minister.
Lebed's new job, like his campaign platform, will focus mainly on fighting crime and corruption. "Eleven million voters believed that I could guarantee citizens' security. I am an officer and must be worthy of their trust," he said.
Yeltsin is reportedly planning to expand the powers of the Security Council secretary's post in preparation for a high-profile war on crime led by Lebed. The president has recently been dropping broad hints that he sees Lebed as his heir apparent.