World

The purge

Boris Yeltsin's security chief is out—but not down

MALCOLM GRAY October 28 1996
World

The purge

Boris Yeltsin's security chief is out—but not down

MALCOLM GRAY October 28 1996

The purge

World

Boris Yeltsin's security chief is out—but not down

He is a burly ex-paratrooper with outspoken views and a basso profundo voice. As President Boris Yeltsin’s national security adviser, he negotiated a peace agreement with separatist rebels in Chechnya, attacked crime and corruption—and made himself the most popular politician in Russia. Last week, he became an unemployed politician. In an unscheduled appearance on national television, an ailing Yeltsin, with a flourish of his black fountain pen, signed a decree firing a man whom he had once described as his heir apparent. “Alexander Lebed has been a disruptive influence,” said a drawn and haggard Yeltsin, accusing the 46-year-old retired army general of waging an unseemly power struggle within the Kremlin. 25 Despite Yeltsin’s attempt at firmness, the firing 3 appeared more like the act of an infirm ruler £ fighting the challenge of a pretender nearly 20 § years his junior. And far from ridding the 1 Kremlin of a loose cannon, the action convert1 ed the covetous Ixbed into a weapon aimed squarely at the Yeltsin regime. “This decision does not worry me,” Lebed breezily declared after his sacking. “I am going to continue on in politics.”

Few doubt that. But Yeltsin’s move has at least interrupted a meteoric rise for Lebed, who last June finished a strong third in the opening round of Russia’s presidential contest. Yeltsin, with an eye on resurgent Communist party forces, invited Lebed to join his administration as security chief, a move that solidified Yeltsin’s final victory at the polls two weeks later but also put Lebed in position to accumulate power amid the Kremlin’s byzantine intrigues. His expulsion will do little to halt the growing struggle to succeed a president who in recent weeks has all but retired from public view. And far from harming him, Lebed’s firing may have given his alltoo-naked ambitions a substantial boost. ‘Yeltsin has given Lebed a wonderful gift,” says Viktor Levashov, senior analyst at Moscow’s Institute of Social and Political Research. “Now, he is free to roam the political stage, to say whatever pleases the crowds, and to build up his own political base. At the same time, he has his achievements in government, particularly the Chechen peace, under his belt.”

As Lebed’s replacement, Yeltsin turned to a loyal moderate, Ivan Rybkin, 50, a former speaker of the State Duma (lower house of parliament) who used that position to head off potential clashes with the president. Now, as secretary of Yeltsin’s powerful Security Council and as the president’s personal envoy to breakaway Chechnya, Rybkin is unlikely to stir trouble in the Kremlin or try to assume a dominant public image while Yeltsin is ill. The 65-year-old Russian president is scheduled to undergo heart bypass surgery in mid-November. If the operation restores Yeltsin to full strength, then Lebed’s current popularity may prove ephemeral, fading in company with the prospect of early elections before the president’s term officially comes to an end in the year 2000. If, on the other hand, Yeltsin’s failing powers necessitate a call for new elections sometime soon, Lebed may well stand to reap the benefits of being unceremoniously dumped by an unpopular government.

That Yeltsin is seriously ill at the moment is beyond question. On television last week, he appeared frail, stumbling over his words, occasionally losing the thread of his message to the point where he appeared to require off-camera prompting. Many Russian observers, in fact, maintain that Yeltsin’s health has deteriorated to the point

that day-to-day control of the country’s affairs is no longer in the president’s hands but rather in those of his close associates—especially chief of staff Anatoly Chubais and Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. “These days Yeltsin is 60-per-cent Chubais, 20-percent Chernomyrdin and only 20-per-cent Yeltsin himself,” contends Sergei Markov, an analyst at the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow.

Neither Chubais nor Chernomyrdin harbor any affection for Lebed. Both, in fact, have been in the forefront of a sustained and vitriolic campaign to discredit the former general in recent days. If Russian public opinion polls can be believed, however, the attacks have only strengthened Lebed’s

popularity. A major reason for that acclaim is the fragile deal in Chechnya.

The retired general did not shrink from accepting the poisoned chalice of seeking peace with the Chechen separatists shortly after joining Yeltsin’s team. Where others, including Prime Minister Chernomyrdin, had seen their efforts founder, Lebed succeeded. He did so by the simple, if controversial, expedient of delaying a final decision on Chechen independence for five years. Ordinary Russians approved of an end to the 21-monthconflict that had claimed as many as 100,000 lives. But Lebed’s charge that Russian generals had bungled the conduct of the war quickly earned him enemies among his cabinet colleagues.

Chief among those was Anatoly Kulikov, a 50-year-old with a soldierly brush cut and

the face of a bulldog. As interior minister, Kulikov was in charge of Russian forces in Chechnya in August when the rebels retook Grozny, the shattered regional capital, from bigger, better-armed federal forces. Lebed publicly named him as one of the incompetent military leaders who had lost a war that was fought to maintain Russia’s territorial integrity. And he concluded that attack by threatening to resign if Yeltsin did not fire Kulikov.

Kulikov did not wait long to mount a counterattack. In the past three weeks, he had rallied nationalist deputies in the Duma against Lebed’s peace plan, calling it a sellout and accusing the general of “high treason.” Kulikov’s assertion last week that Lebed had planned to mount a “creeping coup” was only the latest salvo in a co-ordinated attack on the security adviser. Pro-government media were pressed to depict Lebed in a negative light. “This campaign,” said Alexander Shilin, an editor at the weekly Moscow News, “was calculated to warn Lebed to think about what he was saying.”

But the pressure tactics did not work. Lebed continued on a course that revealed both his drive to replace Yeltsin and his political inexperience. Bluntly, he urged the president to resign for health reasons. Lebed also forged an odd-couple alliance with Alexander Korzhakov, Yeltsin’s former bodyguard and a man who has been likened to Rasputin, the 19th-century monk who was the ultimate Kremlin insider of his day.

In the end, most analysts agree, Lebed was done in by Yeltsin’s powerful chief of staff, Chubais. Until last week’s sacking, Lebed, Chubais and prime minister Chernomyrdin formed a troika that exercised and competed for power in Yeltsin’s increasingly enfeebled regime. “Lebed was a big stumbling block for Chubais,” says Levashov. “Things could not run smoothly, and Chubais’s authority to speak and act in Yeltsin’s name was not undisputed, as long as Lebed was around.” In fact, Lebed concentrated most of his return fire on Chubais, a shrewd 41-year-old who is the regime’s ablest administrator and who owes at least part of his spreading influence to his close relationship— how close is a matter of rumor—with Yeltsin’s daughter and most trusted confidante, 36-year-old Tatyana Dyachenko. “Chubais,” said Lebed, “is now the regent, the power behind the throne.” Still, as Lebed headed into the political wilderness, however briefly, to attempt to build a political base for his presidential ambitions, he sounded a sombre warning about the effects of his dismissal on the Chechen ceasefire. He stressed that he cared little about his ejection from the Kremlin but did re gret losing his position as Russia’s chief negotiator in the war-torn region. “I’m the only one the rebels believe in Chechnya,” he said, “and I’m the only one that the Russian people believe on Chechnya.” There was some backing for his boast. Within one hour of the broadcast of Lebed’s dismissal, separatist representatives were telephoning Moscow from Chechnya, furious at the news. They confirmed that the general still had their trust and warned his triumphant opponents not to risk rekindling the war in a vain attempt to impose a military solution in Chechnya. In Grozny as in Moscow, Yeltsin’s attempt to act decisively had instead shown Russia to be a place where instability and uncertainty were once again on the rise.

MALCOLM GRAY

FRED WEIR