Power struggle over Chechnya High stakes: Kremlin inner circle fears unpredictable Lebed may gain too much.

August 26, 1996

SO MANY PEOPLE -- particularly in Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin's inner circle -- want retired Gen. Alexander Lebed to fail that the security chief's early success in bringing hostilities to an end in Chechnya is nothing short of stunning. Mr. Lebed's mission may ultimately fail because his rivals do not want him to acquire more power and prestige. But he has shown that negotiations with the separatists are possible and that the Chechens may be ready to abandon their demand for independence.

As is common in these kinds of situations, those who just a few days ago insisted that none of this could be done now claim anyone could have achieved it. Not so. The separatists have made it amply clear that while they are willing to deal with Mr. Lebed, they do not trust President Yeltsin or the architects of Russia's military disaster in Chechnya.

Mr. Lebed's tentative success in ending the 20-month war in the Caucasus is being watched with alarm by those Kremlin insiders who did not want this brash and ambitious soldier in a powerful government position to begin with and who now fear he may become a serious contender in the behind-the-scenes intrigues to succeed the ailing Mr. Yeltsin. Nothing would please them more than to see him commit a self-destructing blunder.

The ascension of Mr. Lebed presents a particular problem for the new barons of Russian industry who have coalesced around Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin. Although Mr. Lebed has been less than specific about it, he views many of those new millionaire industrialists with suspicion, suggesting that their riches are ill-begotten and that they are responsible for the economic instability and corruption of today's Russia. For that reason, Mr. Lebed threatens the cozy relationship the post-communist industrialists have been enjoying with the Kremlin.

Mr. Yeltsin's health is so precarious that the Kremlin power struggle concerns who can speak in his name in his absence. In the past, it has been the Chernomyrdin faction. However, Mr. Lebed has made it clear he thinks he operates under a special mandate from Mr. Yeltsin. This power conflict is so fundamental that one of the rivals has to fall. Chechnya is likely to play a pivotal role in that drama.

Pub Date: 8/26/96

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