THE Kremlin is once again abuzz with political intrigue and strategical posturings by various aspirants in a power struggle precipitated by President Boris Yeltsin’s ill health. And despite the political calm after the dismissal of security chief Alexander Lebed over an alleged coup plan, the race for a possible presidential election is hotting up.
Yeltsin signed a decree removing Lebed from his post as Security Council chief in a nationwide address from a sanatorium, where he is preparing for a heart by-pass operation. He cited Lebed’s ‘Bonapartism’ and inability to work as part of the presidential team as reasons for the sacking. He was replaced by former chairman of the Duma, Ivan Rybkin.
The outspoken and gruff Lebed said he had expected his sacking to take place sooner or later because he was a ‘black sheep’ in the Kremlin. Blaming Premier Viktor Chernomyrdin and Presidential Chief of Staff Anatoly Chubais for his removal, he said: "I was an obstacle to Chubais’ plans to establish a regency. He wants to become president." Yeltsin’s decision followed a public accusation by Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov that Lebed was conspiring to form a 50,000-strong "Russian legion" under his command, which would have the right to ‘liquidate’ by force of arms "the present threat to state security".
Kulikov’s statements were part of an unprecedented sleaze campaign tearing apart the Kremlin in the absence of the ailing president. Earlier Lebed accused Kulikov of creating a bloodbath in Chechnya and establishing "concentration camps". And former presidential chief bodyguard Alexander Korzhakov, who had been ousted by Yeltsin last summer and is now running for a parliamentary seat with Lebed’s support, said he has "compromising material" on top figures in the Kremlin.
Lebed, a popular general, advocating law and order, came up third in last summer’s presidential elections with 11 million votes in the first round of elections. But he was coopted by Yeltsin as security chief before the second round of voting and was instrumental in ensuring a Yeltsin win. But he fast fell out with Chernomyrdin and Chubais by trying to bring economic policy under the umbrella of "national security matters".
Major political leaders, if not the public at large, cheered his sacking, with the opposition-dominated Duma almost unanimously supporting it. Yet, in the medium term, Lebed may pose a greater threat to Russia’s political elite than ever. According to the Itogi newsmagazine: "The ousting of Lebed shows that Chernomyrdin and his allies have no other option but to get ready for new elections in Russia, although they prefer the status quo with Yeltsin at the wheel."
In Russia, the premier replaces the president if he is incapacitated and has to call for new elections within three months. However, it seems that it is not Chernomyrdin, but Chubais who has emerged immensely powerful after Lebed’s exit. Chubais is said to be filling in for Yeltsin during his illness.
Lebed’s only concrete achievement is the August 31 Khasavyart agreement that stopped the war in Chechnya, an issue given top priority by the electorate. And it is to his advantage that he is now free from the responsibility of managing the most difficult part of the peace process in Chechnya.
And so, Lebed is likely to be remembered by the people as the ‘doer’ who got the war stopped only to be ousted in an unsavoury palace intrigue. This, coupled with his popularity and a law-and-order man image—popular among an electorate tired of wage non-payment, all-encompassing corruption and crime—places him as a front-runner in the next presidential elections.
Political observers are not so smitten by him. Says Andrei Piontkovsky, head of the Moscow-based Strategic Studies Center: "He has no clear ideas for Russia’s economic revival either. His instincts are of a dictator. But today, given the mood of the country, his chances of coming to power by democratic means are quite good."
All in all, Lebed’s presidential aspirations depend largely not on his own activities in the immediate future, but on Yeltsin’s health. Should the incumbent die or step down for health reasons, Lebed would be in a strong position. But if Yeltsin lives out his present term and his team continues the Chechen peace process while keeping Lebed off the stage, his chances become bleak. By mid-November, when Yeltsin’s by-pass operation is scheduled, Russia will know how things stand.