Rebuke to a Russian strongman Lebed's ouster: Yeltsin's infirmity is too big an invitation to others' ambitions.

October 18, 1996

THE MARCH TO CIVILITY by Russia is shown by the loser of a vicious Kremlin power struggle, accused of heinous offenses, freely giving a radio interview to announce his intended return to vigorous politics. Gen. Alexander Lebed is out. He is not through.

The young retired army general came in a startling third in last June's presidential election. Then he performed two great services to President Boris Yeltsin and Russia. The first was to throw his support behind the incumbent against the Communist challenger, Gennady Zyuganov, in the July run-off. The second was to negotiate a dignified exit from the Chechnya quagmire, rescuing Mr. Yeltsin, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov from the folly of their atrocities. Mr. Kulikov could never forgive that.

With the president out of Moscow awaiting a heart operation -- and someone leaking perhaps falsely that he is too ill for it -- the potential rivals that Mr. Yeltsin arranged to check each other got out of hand. In short order this week, General Lebed told the parliament that Mr. Kulikov was to blame for failure in Chechnya, Mr. Kulikov accused him of creating a private army to subvert the state, General Lebed's bodyguards arrested two of Mr. Kulikov's agents tailing the general, and Mr. Chernomyrdin said things weren't as bad as they looked.

The situation was resolved by President Yeltsin, appearing on television to sack General Lebed as chief of national security. General Lebed's mistakes, he said, were to split the team, act without authority and flirt politically with a disgraced predecessor. Nobody lost his head. This is contemporary Russia. Mr. Kulikov's troops were on the streets in stronger than normal numbers. That was all.

The winners in the Kremlin inner circle, besides Mr. Kulikov, are Mr. Chernomyrdin and the resilient young Anatoly Chubais, chief of the presidential staff and a vigorous economic reformer with no real power base other than loyalty to the president. General Lebed joins those outside the pale, including Mr. Zyuganov and the Moscow mayor, Yuri Luzhkov. General Lebed, a champion of the under-budgeted regular army, remains a popular figure.

For the United States, the most significant result is that Russia's most ardent opponent of NATO expansion is out of the Kremlin. That is a short-lived blessing. What the U.S. really requires is stability in Russia. And that rests on the uncertain health of the hTC president, Boris Yeltsin. Had he been seen to have been in his prime, none of this would have happened.

Pub Date: 10/18/96

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