RETIRED GEN. Alexander I. Lebed showed good sense and personal courage in brokering an end to hostilities in Chechnya. That's why his popularity is soaring and that's why he has started an aggressive campaign to succeed ailing President Boris N. Yeltsin.
Already he is getting more publicity than Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, Mr. Lebed's rivals for the Kremlin throne.
On many matters, close attention ought to be paid to Mr. Lebed's statements. He is right in calling public attention to the shameful conditions in the once-vaunted Red Army, where many officers and soldiers have not been paid for months, and warning a rebellion might ensue. He is on target in expressing alarm about a major nuclear disaster unless leaking reactors are secured on Russian submarines. And he is probably truthful in saying that after three months as a Yeltsin administration insider, "I have not yet managed to understand how decisions are made in this country."
Mr. Lebed seems to have grasped the rewards in courting voters, by appealing to their chauvinism. Thus he recently declared that if the United States attacked Russia the way it had attacked Iraq, "I would hit back instantly. With everything we've got." That's clear, tough, jingoistic talk from a professional soldier. Ordinary Russians like it.
More unsettling is Mr. Lebed's increasingly hard stance on the plan by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to expand its membership and accept former Soviet allies such as Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic. In the past, Mr. Lebed was relatively level-headed about this. He did not like the expansion but said its threat to Russia should not be overstated.
Campaigning during last summer's presidential race, however, he began sharpening his views. If Poland became a NATO member, he warned, that might trigger the third world war. More recently Mr. Lebed has called for retaliatory actions toward "German and American industrial interests in Russia" if NATO is expanded to the East.
Some of Mr. Lebed's strident populism may be for show. But it is clear that millions of Russians share his sentiments and encourage his bellicose and uncompromising posture. They are sick and tired of Russia's loss of stature and want a militant man on horseback.
Pub Date: 9/29/96