Out of Siberia, two brothers set to challenge Moscow
MOSCOW — Last month, two governors from Siberia decided to build a structure across the Yenisey River, to be called the Bridge of Friendship.
In itself, there was nothing remarkable about the fact - except that the duo planning this symbol of unity are brothers, and prominent ones at that.
Krasnoyarsk Gov. Alexander Lebed and his younger brother, Alexei, who rules Khakassia, are political oddities in Russia where party affiliation rather than family ties traditionally furthered a career.
Unlike in the United States where the Bush and Kennedy families have the air of dynasties on the political landscape, the notion of a political clan in Russia is still fairly novel. But the Lebeds, vigorous men in their 40s, are taken seriously in their regional challenge to Moscow's foundering rule.
"It is the first case in our history where we have two brothers who are governors," says Vladimir Pribylovsky, president of Panorama Research Center in Moscow. "We have other brothers in politics but nothing on this level."
Alexander is the more famous of the two, a retired general who ran for president in 1996 and plans to do so again in 2000.
Rough-hewn and straight talking, his demeanor is of the military in which he served. The ex-paratrooper led troops in Afghanistan and quelled ethnic conflicts, including negotiating the end of Russia's disastrous 1994-96 war with Chechnya.
Alexander Lebed briefly served as President Boris Yeltsin's national security chief, until he was sacked for his own political ambitions.
But that did nothing to dampen his hunger for power. Earlier this year he won the gubernatorial elections in Krasnoyarsk - an important industrial area 2,100 miles east of Moscow - as a platform from which to launch his current presidential campaign.
Lebed's doomsday message that the country will descend into anarchy without strong, even dictatorial, rule strikes a populist chord for nationalists yearning for lost glory.
"Russia has done it the wrong way, with free-market reforms and democracy at the same time," he told the Monitor in a recent interview.
"That's absurd. Democracy came before the country was ready."
Krasnoyarsk, endowed with the world's biggest nickel producer, Norilsk Nickel, makes up a huge chunk of Russia stretching from the Arctic to the border with Mongolia. It is situated conveniently next to Khakassia, which Alexei Lebed has ruled for two years with a touchiness toward Moscow that seems to run in the family.
Both men believe there is strength in numbers when taking on the central government, especially when your political ally is your brother.
"Certainly brotherly relations help administrative matters," says Alexander.
Of the two, the younger Alexei stands to benefit more by the association, although he helped his brother's campaign with moral and financial support.
Known popularly as Lebed Mladshy - "Younger Lebed" - Alexei is also a more jovial person, renowned for his jokes, including one that went wrong when he kidded reporters that he intended to run for president, too.
"I keep telling the journalists, 'It was just a joke, leave me alone.' But they keep bugging me about it," he complains, bemused that they took him so seriously. "Of course I support my brother's candidacy."
The brothers also differ in their allegiances to their parents. Alexei on his identity papers describes himself as Ukrainian like their mother, while Alexander opted for their father's Russian nationality.
Big ambitions, humble roots
Both brothers attribute their ambitions to a drive to overcome their humble roots. They were born in Rostov district, in the south, from a lineage of Cossack soldiers. Their father was a carpenter who fought as a sergeant in World War II. Their mother worked for the postal service.
"They bred us to do everything ourselves," says Alexander.
Adds Alexei: "Our father taught us to work hard, as he did. Our mother stressed that we must be self-reliant."
Being in his brother's shadow has become a habit for Lebed Mladshy since they were in the military.
Alexei also served in Afghanistan and as a paratrooper commander elsewhere, but never went beyond the rank of colonel.
"He's very serious. I was a more of a hooligan type of guy," Alexei says.
"I don't find it offensive to be called Lebed Mladshy. People say he is taller. I say, 'But I'm fatter.' Besides, being his brother has attracted me media interest."
Alexei Lebed's lesser ambition was evident a couple of years ago when some Ukrainian politicians approached him about running for president in that country. He declined, and shrugs off the idea of vying for the job in Russia too.
"Maybe I'll think the idea over in four or 10 years. But I'm in no hurry now."
These days the brothers mainly meet over work to plot joint projects, such as the bridge and financial deals. The last notable time they relaxed together was in August in Krasnoyarsk, when they led rival teams in soccer, volleyball, and pistol shooting.
It was not without a competitive fraternal edge.
"We lost the soccer. But we won the shooting and volleyball," says Alexei, somewhat smugly.