MOSCOW -- President Boris N. Yeltsin fired national security chief Alexander I. Lebed yesterday as abruptly as he had brought the popular but strong-willed former general into the Kremlin four months ago to bolster his re-election chances.
Yeltsin, who is resting in preparation for a heart operation next month, announced the end of Lebed's troublesome place in the Kremlin, where he had become the center of a power struggle among the president's chief aides and advisers.
The vicious Kremlin infighting had fueled images of widespread government chaos, reaching an embarrassing peak Wednesday when Interior Minister Anatoly S. Kulikov, head of the nation's police, accused Lebed of plotting a coup and training his own army.
Lebed's brutal honesty has charmed Russians but always seemed to be aimed damagingly at one or another of Yeltsin's inner circle.
"I can't tolerate the situation anymore," said Yeltsin, who looked tired and angry in a national television appearance from the spa where he is resting. "I have to relieve General Lebed of his position as secretary of the Security Council."
Lebed, who finished an impressive third in presidential elections this year, immediately made it clear that his political career won't end as abruptly as his Kremlin posting.
The 46-year-old former army general, viewed in Russian polls as the most trusted and popular politician, vowed yesterday that after a short vacation he will begin preparing full time for future presidential elections.
A nationwide survey last month showed that Lebed was the most trusted politician in Russia, with more than twice the rating of Communist leader Gennady A. Zyuganov, who was the next most highly trusted. Respondents rated Yeltsin a distant fifth.
Lebed said he would not start his campaign while Yeltsin is alive.
"Today, he's an elderly and ill person," Lebed said. "It's not for me to kick the one who is down."
Criticism may intensify
While Lebed's departure from the Kremlin won't end his criticism of the Kremlin chiefs, it will deprive him of the high-profile post from which to launch those attacks.
This week, Lebed turned on his one Kremlin ally, Defense Minister Igor Rodionov, who had proposed troop cuts in the airborne forces Lebed once commanded.
With Yeltsin unable to function fully because of his heart trouble, the government is likely to remain weak, beset by internal squabbling and external criticism, which is likely to intensify now that Lebed is on the outside.
But without Lebed, Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin and Yeltsin's liberal chief of staff, Anatoly B. Chubais, are expected to have closer control over internal conflicts.
Lebed's major accomplishment during his Kremlin tenure was to broker an end to the 18-month war in the breakaway republic of Chechnya. Maintaining that shaky agreement without Lebed's bullish advocacy is perhaps the biggest problem his departure creates for the Yeltsin administration.
While Lebed won about 15 percent of the vote in the first round of presidential elections in June and now enjoys what polls show to be a 35 percent popularity rating, there was no sign yesterday in Moscow of any public protest of his firing.
However, additional police appeared to be on duty in the capital.
'Splitting the team'
The president said yesterday that he had encouraged Lebed to be patient and to try to work with others when the security chief tried to resign several weeks ago. But he accused Lebed of "splitting the [Kremlin] team apart" and making decisions without consulting him or the rest of the government.
Yeltsin said the tempestuous general was acting as if the next presidential election campaign already had begun.
"The election won't be held until the year 2000, and already we have a situation where everyone seems to want to take part in an election," Yeltsin complained.
The president acted hours after an emergency government meeting of security chiefs, called because of Interior Minister Kulikov's accusation that Lebed was plotting a coup. Kulikov said he had documentation of Lebed's efforts to raise a rogue army, which included specific plans for political death squads whose mission was not defined.
Lebed denied the accusation that he was plotting a coup and explained that a plan for a "Russian Legion" was merely one of many military reform plans floated before the whole National Security Council in August.
After yesterday's meeting, Chernomyrdin said there was some truth in Kulikov's allegations, but that it did not extend to mutinies or coups.
Nevertheless, Chernomyrdin called for increased security "in the dangerous places of the country" and appealed for calm among the security forces.
Yesterday afternoon, Lebed's guards detained and disarmed Interior Ministry agents who were shadowing him, according to Lebed's office. Lebed accused Kulikov's ministry of possibly having other Kremlin leaders under illegal surveillance.