SALON Daily Clicks: Newsreal

New man on a white horse

Published June 17, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

The day after Russia's historic presidential election, runoff contenders Boris Yeltsin and Communist opponent Gennady Zyuganov began the hard wooing of General Alexander Lebed, who surprised everyone by coming in third with 15 percent of the vote. Yeltsin met with Lebed and offered him the defense ministry; Zyuganov, who finished less than three percent behind Yeltsin in Sunday's election, offered him the job of prime minister.

We talked about Sunday's election and its aftermath with Martin Malia, professor of history at the University of California at Berkeley, and the author, most recently, of "The Soviet Tragedy: A History of Socialism in Russia, 1917-1991" (Free Press, 1994). Malia, ahead of other American academics, predicted the collapse of the Soviet system even as former president Mikhail Gorbachev was at the top of his power and prestige. His new book, "From the Bronze Horseman to the Lenin Mausoleum: Russia Under Western Eyes," will be published next year by Harvard University Press.

What was the key to Lebed's remarkable showing?

The fact that he isn't tainted by the past. Not by the Communist past, nor by the corruption of the "party of power" -- which is the group around Yeltsin. He looks like a fresh, clean, honest, forthright and relatively young voice.

And is he those things?

Approximately, yes. He's only 45 years old. He was not high in the Communist Party, and he's kept his distance from Yeltsin's entourage. When he started out in politics a couple of years ago, he was very naive, but he's learned a great deal since then and I think this came across, in his bluff manner, to the electorate.

He was touted a few years ago as the great hope springing from the military, then seemed to have sank, at least in media estimation.

Yes, for one thing he was seen as an Afghanistan war hero. Then when the Soviet Union broke up he became the defender of the Russian-speaking secessionist part of Moldova. He had a private fief down there, so he looked like a rebellious officer operating independently of Moscow. But it turns out he's not the simple crude nationalist he seemed to be then. He accepts the market, and while he once expressed admiration for Gen. Pinochet, he accepts constitutional government. He's been very anti-Yeltsin over the Chechen war, but he's also very anti-Communist.

With Yeltsin and Zyuganov ardently courting him, which way is he likely to go?

Since Yeltsin is in power, I think he can offer Lebed a better deal. Yeltsin will also play on Lebed's genuine anti-Communism, which I think is greater than his feelings of hostility to Yeltsin. But I'm sure that Lebed would also want some assurances about policy. He wants a strong, revived, dignified Russia.

What does that mean?

It would certainly have something to do with defending the interests of Russians in the "near abroad" -- the humiliating second-class citizenship of Russians in Latvia and Estonia, for example. He would probably lean towards a firmer line on Kazakhstan, which has 40 percent Russian population, and would certainly agitate for some sort of union of the three Slavic republics -- Belarus, Ukraine and Russia.

Whichever government Lebed joins, does that mean a newly belligerent Russia, bristling with all sorts of weapons, ready to enforce its diktats at the point of a tank -- as Richard Starr of the Hoover Institute suggested in the Wall Street Journal last week?

No. I think this is a bogeyman that various people drag out reflexively because of Russia's past. But Russia doesn't have the means or the money or the technological organization any more to rebuild a threatening military. Lebed knows not to try and do these things by military means. It's the end of the 20th century. Large nations can't enforce their power by marching across borders; and besides, Russia depends too much on the outside world's good will to engage in that sort of behavior.

But Russia would still emerge atop a larger union?

The Slavic republics have never separated very much, and neither Belarus nor Ukraine have the resources that Russia has. Their economies are still to a large extent integrated with Russia's. It would make real political and economic sense to have some sort of union -- less than the old Soviet Union but more than the arrangement we now have with the Commonwealth of Independent States.

One doesn't hear too many Lebed supporters saying they will vote for Zyuganov in the runoff. Are there other pockets of Communist support that could put Zyuganov over the top?

The 32 percent he got has been the Communist hard core all along. They got 23 percent in the parliamentary elections last December, but if you add in other parties that back the same line, they've had about the same percentage as far back as '93. Zhirinovsky, whose supporters might have lined up with the Communists, has withered away, which is just as well. So barring some enormous gaffe, or another heart attack, Yeltsin will win.

And what does that mean for Russia?

The same kind of flip-flop left-center, right-center affair that it's been since the end of '92, along with the corruption of the old-time party hacks that Yeltsin brought in to replace the pro-Western liberal reformers.

But assuming he wins, won't he have a mandate to clean out the hacks?

That will depend on Lebed. Given the pressure of Lebed's "clean government" forces, yes, he'll have to weed out some of those people. But Yeltsin realistically recognizes that they are numerous and therefore an important political force in the country, and they have to have something.

So, for all its historical drama, the election pretty much means business as usual.

Yes, Russia will continue to muddle through. We're going to have continuing progress towards a market economy -- Yeltsin may not be a metaphysical democrat, but he does believe that a modernized economy is crucial. It will be accompanied by corruption and the Mafia. The Mafia is big and it's powerful -- even a law and order guy like Lebed couldn't clean it up even if he had the power to do so -- but it will not take over the state either.

The pictures of Yeltsin getting down with the rock and rollers in Moscow -- one worried whether he was going to have a heart attack there and then. His health is a problem, and he's not getting any younger. So, after Yeltsin, what or who?

Lebed. He's only 45. He'll probably build up some negatives and make some enemies when he becomes part of the government and starts making decisions. But for the moment, he's clean, and he's surely going to run again.

Quote of the day

Bloody Saturday

"(The bomb is) a slap in the face to people who have been trying, against perhaps their better instincts, to give Sinn Fein a chance to show that they could persuade the IRA to re-instate the cease-fire."

-- Irish Prime Minister John Bruton on Saturday's terrorist explosion in Manchester, England, which wounded 200 people.

By Andrew Ross

Andrew Ross is Salon's executive vice president.

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