President Boris Yeltsin conducted a major purge of unpopular, undemocratic and influential ministers yesterday morning, leaving Gen. Alexander Lebed the most powerful man in Russia next to Mr. Yeltsin himself.
Without warning Yeltsin fired his closest aide, chief bodyguard Gen. Alexander Korzhakov, who has been at the heart of countless Kremlin conspiracy theories. He also sacked the head of the Federal Security Service (formerly the KGB) Gen. Mikhail Barsukov, along with hard-line Deputy Prime Minister Oleg Soskovets.
Coming two days after the dismissal of Defense Minister Pavel Grachev at General Lebed's express demand, the dismissals appeared to clear the way for a radical change in the Russian government's style. Lebed is alone at the helm of national security, and his arrival has shaken the structures of the state to their foundations.
Lebed has been Russia's security supremo for only three days. By his own account he has already stamped out a coup attempt, averted a mutiny by the secret police, and deposed a defense minister. Before Yeltsin has won reelection, the gravel-voiced general is being talked of as his successor in the Kremlin.
In typically taurine style, Lebed has hit the ground running and thrown aside all before him in the past 72 hours, becoming "a very powerful man, the only top official responsible for state security in the whole country," in the words of Alexander Golz, a columnist for the Army newspaper Red Star.
Lebed was named secretary of the powerful Security Council and the president's national security adviser Tuesday after the first round of Russia's elections June 16. His strong third-place showing, in which he earned 15 percent of the vote, prompted Yeltsin to invite him into his government in order to woo his voters' support for the election's second round on July 3.
Yesterday's dismissals followed a tense night on Wednesday, during which two senior aides in Yeltsin's reelection campaign were detained in government headquarters for 10 hours by officials loyal to Generals Korzhakov and Barsukov.
The incident sparked allegations that moves were afoot to cancel the second round of presidential elections, in which Yeltsin appears to hold a slim lead over his Communist challenger, Gennady Zyuganov.
The three dismissed officials "took too much and gave too little," Yeltsin said brutally, in a blunt reference to widespread allegations of their corruption.
Though the motives behind Wednesday night's detentions remain cloaked in Kremlin intrigue, a number of theories have emerged.
An aborted coup?
Anatoly Chubais, a top official in the president's campaign team, emerged from a meeting with Yeltsin yesterday. He claimed that the incident marked the aborted first step in a coup d'tat by forces who opposed the president's decision to run for reelection, preferring to see him stay in office without a vote. Korzhakov called two months ago for elections to be postponed.
Other observers suggest that the detentions - which Barsukov said were linked to an unexplained $500,000 in the campaign aides' possession - may have been a coincidence that Yeltsin chose to exploit in order to rid himself of unpopular hawks in his entourage. Yeltsin yesterday named Nikolai Kovalyov to replace Barsukov as director of the Security Service.
It is also speculated in some quarters that Lebed and Yeltsin had agreed that Korzhakov and his allies would have to be sacked, to give the new security chief more elbow room, and that they somehow set up the shadowy bodyguard.
"It might have been a coincidence or a very cunning intrigue - who knows the Byzantine Kremlin?" said Mr. Golz, the Red Star columnist.
Either way, Lebed's presence in the administration and his popularity in the Army seem to have given Yeltsin the feeling of political and military support he needed in order to sack three such key players at once, risking an outbreak of armed resistance.
And whatever role Lebed played in planning this week's developments, they have left him in almost sole control of security for the time being. With his incorporation into the government, he had already seduced many democratic reformers, and they see renewed hope in yesterday's dismissals.
Lebed's appointment, giving Yeltsin an electoral advantage, meant "the last nail was pounded into the coffin of Russian communism," Mr. Chubais said. Yesterday's dismissals, he added, "pounded the last nail into the coffin of the illusion that force can decide the future of the Rus-sian state.
"I am firmly convinced that it won't be just Yeltsin who wins [the second round of the election] but a new Yeltsin with a new team," Chubais added.
The nature of the role that Lebed manages to carve for himself in this team, should Yeltsin be re-elected, will be crucial to his chances of success in his job and to his political future. "Either he will be a practical politician and he will be Yeltsin's heir, or he will be a populist demagogue and he will fail," says Sergei Kolmakov, a political analyst on Yeltsin's campaign team.
Introducing Lebed to the Security Council yesterday, Yeltsin said the council's new secretary would "personally supervise ... strengthening the security of society and of the individual, strengthening political stability in Russia."
Given this broad responsibility, Lebed himself has cast his role in paternalistic terms as the man the country can rely upon to save it from chaos.
Lebed a 'stone wall'
During his surprisingly successful presidential campaign he likened himself to a "stone wall" behind which the Russian people could safely shelter, warning repeatedly in recent weeks of the danger of civil war and stressing his determination to ward it off.
Yesterday morning before dawn, as he roared off in his official car to investigate the detentions in the White House (the seat of the Russian government), he warned gruffly that "any mutiny will be crushed and crushed with extreme severity. Those who want to throw the country into the abyss of bloody chaos deserve no mercy at all."
Although Lebed seems to have moderated his public stance since the days when he expressed admiration for the way in which Chilean military dictator Augusto Pinochet restored stability to his country, he is still a vocal nationalist and a firm believer in the value of "order."
The promise of a relentless campaign against crime and corruption was a major and appealing plank in his presidential platform, but observers have questioned Lebed's commitment to lawful means in view of his declared intention to use paratroopers to break up organized crime.
"He will be very active, and it will not be according to law," warns Sergei Markov, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment's Moscow Center. "It will be a war."
Order and freedom
The general himself has been at pains to cleanse himself of this image. "We will use only civilized methods," he insisted to reporters on Tuesday.
"What we have today is freedom without order. Some suggest order without freedom. But I want both order and freedom in this country so that this freedom would be protected by reasonable laws.... Perhaps the law is bad, but it will be complied with," Lebed said.
How thoroughly Lebed will really be able to root out corruption, however, is hard to tell. Under the "wild capitalism" that has flourished in Russia since the fall of communism, the surest way of getting rich quick has been to cultivate contacts in government.
Corruption is now so widespread that a genuine campaign to stamp it out would necessarily have to target large numbers of senior government officials and too many powerful businessmen for comfort - especially since many of those businessmen make up Yeltsin's economic support base.
"Lebed has a number of constructive ideas connected with the rapid introduction of law and order," commented Communist leader Zyuganov earlier this week. "But to implement them he will need a large team, powerful political support, and the necessary legal framework." None of which, Zyuganov pointed out, is yet in place.
Other commentators are more hopeful of Lebed's chances. "In Russia, a lot depends not on political structures but on personality," suggests Sergei Yushenkov, former chairman of the Duma (lower house of parliament) defense committee.
And the fact that yesterday's dismissals targeted three of the more notoriously corrupt aides in the president's close circle also suggests that Yeltsin might be prepared to give Lebed the political support he would need.