General to the rescue Alexander Lebed: War hero's support gives Yeltsin credibility in his bid for a second term.

June 20, 1996

THE PROMOTION of retired Gen. Alexander Lebed -- and the quick firing of Defense Minister Pavel Grachev -- are such stunningly deft and opportunistic moves on the part of President Boris N. Yeltsin that there is a danger of overestimating their long-term significance. In the short term, though, Mr. Yeltsin may well have assured his re-election by including his tough-talking No. 2 challenger in his inner circle as the top national security adviser.

Unlike the United States, that position in Russia means overseeing both the armed forces and the internal security apparatus. Which means that if General Lebed is given the freedom to exercise his influence, he could move in earnest to mitigate the disorder and corruption that he singled out during the election campaign as being among the main problems of five years of Yeltsin rule.

The Lebed promotion is likely to boost morale among the active and retired military. The most that can be said about the fired General Grachev is that it is wonder how he lasted this long, considering his bungling in the Chechnya civil war and allegations that he closed his eyes to a large-scale thievery and trafficking of military materiel.

General Lebed, 46, is a largely unknown quality. His credentials as a paratrooper commander in Afghanistan are solid. But while many Russians find his gruff behavior refreshing, the general has no track record as a sophisticated politician. Indeed, while he is sometimes described these days as Russia's Colin Powell, one might ask whether comparing him to Ollie North would not be more appropriate? General Lebed, after all, has shown a somewhat reckless streak of independence that has put him in conflict with his superiors.

General Lebed speaks the language of nationalism, which Gennady Zyuganov's communists and Vladimir Zhirinovsky's chauvinists had tried to monopolize. He wants a strong army, he wants Russia to be recognized as a power throughout Euro-Asia again. General Lebed's inclusion in the Yeltsin cabinet weakens their trump card, a fact Mr. Zhirinovsky conceded yesterday in urging his supporters to vote for the president's re-election.

By tapping General Lebed, Mr. Yeltsin has widened his political basis and created a potent anti-communist front. The thing he needs now are sufficient votes in the run-off election.

Pub Date: 6/20/96

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