The Indianapolis News
September 28, 1999
Alan W. Dowd

Bill Clinton isn’t the world’s only lame-duck president. Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s days are numbered, too.

Hobbled by health problems, embroiled in a massive financial scandal, and losing control of his military and government, Yeltsin will retire in June of 2000, if not before. And when he leaves the Kremlin, someone else will try to reverse Russia’s drift into kleptocracy and disorder. That someone could be Alexander Lebed.

Among the men likely to succeed President Yeltsin, few pay anything more than lip-service to political pluralism and economic liberalism. But Lebed may have something more valuable--the courage to speak his mind and the credentials to lead.

Lebed stands in striking contrast to the bevy of former prime ministers who have set their sights on the Kremlin: Vladimir Putin, Yeltsin’s latest prime minister and ostensibly his hand-picked successor, was a KGB spy and headed the country’s internal security agency. Before that, he served as a Soviet intelligence officer in East Germany. Putin’s presidential bid hinges on his ability to subdue a rebellion in Dagestan while stamping out a deadly terrorist network in Moscow--a tall order for a weakened and fractured military.

Sergei Stepashin, who was a colonel in the interior security ministry, is molding a party of ex-Yeltsin cabinet officials and aides. Viktor Chernomyrdin, who formerly ran the Soviet gas utility and gained popularity for brokering peace in Chechnya while he was prime minster, is trusted by the West. But much of his popularity was lost in Kosovo of all places, where his relentless shuttle diplomacy forged peace between NATO and Serbia.

Former prime minister Yevgeny Primakov, who once headed the KGB, has formed a powerful political party of his own--the Fatherland-All Russia Party. It includes several governors and Moscow’s popular mayor, Yuri Luzhkov.

Alexander Lukashenko, the unabashed communist president of Belarus, has been begging Yeltsin to begin the process of reunification, which would make him eligible to run in Russia’s presidential elections. He promises to do for Russia what he has done for Belarus, where food lines are the norm, industry and agriculture are controlled by the Minsk government, basic civil and political rights are nonexistent, and a dictator writes the constitution and chooses the parliament. But even the revisionists in Russia don’t yearn for the "bad old days" badly enough to anoint Lukashenko as their leader.

Thus, Gennadi Zyuganov, head of the Russian Communist Party, will likely be the communist standard-bearer in the presidential elections. He finished second to Yeltsin in 1996. If his party’s plurality of 157 seats in the Duma is any indication of voter sentiment, then the communists will run away with the 2000 elections.

Then there is General Lebed, governor of a large swath of Siberia and former head of Yeltsin’s national security council. Appointed after syphoning off enough votes from the communists to ensure Yeltsin a second term, Lebed was ousted when Yeltsin found no more political use for the war hero. Elected on the promise to restore economic and political order in Siberia, Lebed has delivered with a blend of populism, tough-talk, and heavy-handedness: In defending his anti-inflation policies, Lebed conceded, "We may infringe on the rights of the people, but it is in their interest."

Lebed is unique among ex-Soviet politicians not only because of his record, but because of his recent military service: He commanded the 14th Russian Army in Moldova, and is seen as a kind of martyr since he balked at orders to withdraw from the tiny land-locked republic for fear that doing so would leave the region’s Russian population unprotected.

Lebed, who announced his intention to run for president this month, contends that Russians need a military leader and the West wants a strong central government in the Kremlin. "Without a general," observed Lebed in a recent speech, "no-one will believe us any more. The world no longer trusts us."

If Kosovo is any indication, Lebed is right. Kosovo uncovered a brutal power struggle between Russian diplomats and generals, a struggle over which Yeltsin had little control, a struggle which obliterated the fiction among Western leaders that Russia is a responsible member of Europe.

The reality is that eight years of symbolic summits have papered over disagreements between Moscow and the West. And the gaping wound that Kosovo had become could not be papered over. Chernomyrdin himself conceded that in Kosovo, "NATO’s goals run counter to Russia’s."

Kosovo showed just how far apart the Kremlin and the West are, as Moscow dispatched warships to hound the NATO armada, re-supplied Belgrade, and provided battlefield-level intelligence and support to the Serbs. In fact, a Russian colonel and captain were among those killed in battles between the Kosovo Liberation Army and Yugoslav Third Army.

But Moscow saved its most reckless act for the end of the war, deploying 200 troops to Pristina after promising not to send them across the Kosovo border. Just hours earlier, Yeltsin and had assured NATO officials that the Russian brigade would remain in Serbia proper until Russia’s role and placement in Kosovo were finalized.

Those assurances were either intentionally false or recklessly ignored by the Russian military. There really can be no other explanation, and neither of those explanations is reassuring: If the Kremlin lied to the White House and Brussels at such a critical hour, what else will it lie about? And even more ominous, if the Kremlin cannot control its army, what’s the next surprise a Russian general will spring on Russia’s civilian leadership and the world?

General Lebed is right: the West has good reason to distrust Moscow. While Lebed’s vision for Russia may not mirror Washington’s, his candor and resolve could lay the groundwork for a genuine partnership between East and West--one based on open dialogue and clear-eyed realism rather than political intrigue and empty summitry.