House of cards

An ambitious man takes a fall  is Russian democracy next?

By Andrew Ross

Published October 17, 1996 11:50AM (EDT)

Russia plunged back into political turmoil today after a sickly-looking Boris Yeltsin appeared on television to announce he had fired his highly popular national security chief, General Alexander Lebed. Yeltsin's move came after days of rumors that Lebed was mounting some sort of "creeping coup," a charge that many analysts say was put forth by Lebed's political enemies in the Kremlin. Lebed told a Moscow radio station that he would take a brief vacation and then "completely and fully engage in politics." He also told the Interfax news agency that he would begin to "prepare for possible presidential elections."

But will Lebed get the chance? We spoke with John Dunlop, a Senior Fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, and author of "The Rise Of Russia and The Fall of The Soviet Union" (Princeton University Press, 1995). He is working on new book about the war in Chechnya, tentatively titled "Yeltsin's War."

The firing of Lebed seemed like a bolt from the blue. Was Yeltsin's move justified?

It's been building for quite a long time. From Yeltsin's perspective, it had to be done, because the power struggle between General Lebed and Gen. [Anatoly] Kulikov [the Interior Minister] was approaching dangerous proportions.

In what way?

Kulikov charged Lebed with plotting a coup. He also brought in more troops and intensified security in Moscow and elsewhere.

Most Western commentators have pooh-poohed the charge. Do you think Lebed was planning a coup?

Possibly. But if he was, he made some mistakes. He waited too long and he let it become public, and therefore he allowed his enemy, Kulikov, to make the necessary preparations. It became much too high risk.

But why would Lebed, who is — or at least was — the most popular man in Russia, feel such a need when he could just wait peacefully for power to fall into his lap?

He's an impatient man. He feels that the state is rudderless. He hates [Yeltsin's chief of staff
Anatoly] Chubais
. He thinks that he is incapable of running the place, and is politically corrupt. I think Lebed found himself isolated and outplayed in the power struggle in the Kremlin.

What happens to Lebed now?

He was wise to accept his dismissal quietly. He doesn't have a bad second option, which is to run for president. At this point it looks like he could easily win, and Yeltsin could be dead in a couple of weeks. But it's not clear if the others will leave him alone. They might try and arrest him. If they did, that would make him a popular martyr. On the other hand, this guy Kulikov strikes me as being a pretty authoritarian figure. He might insist on it.

And the war in Chechnya, which Lebed ended, could flare up again.

That's the big question because Kulikov is a superhawk. Maybe Chubais and [prime minister Viktor] Chernomyrdin can restrain him. It also depends, with Lebed gone, on whether they'll be able to find a mediator that the Chechen rebel forces trust. They trusted Lebed whereas they hate Kulikov. If the war resumes, that could have devastating consequences in Russia.

In his radio address after being fired, Lebed warned as much when he said that "Russian mothers" would have to be prepared now for more of their sons to die in Chechnya.

I think that's very, very serious. One only hopes that the powers that be in Russia have enough sense to rein in Kulikov — if they can. It is not clear what kind of controls they have over this man. He's just gotten rid of his chief rival and he could very well launch a new offensive using devastating artillery strikes, bombing, and all the rest of it. The Chechens could do something in return and the cease-fire would be over. So it's a kind of worrisome scenario. Everything is worrisome about Russia today.

Quote of the day

Pressing the flesh

"Shaking hands may open a man's mind. I can get a sense
by shaking hands if a person will vote for me. If I bow, I can't tell."

— Yoshitake Masuhara, a parliamentary candidate of the New Frontier Party, running in this Sunday's Japanese election. (From "Japan Tries Negative Campaigning, Politely," in Thursday's

New York Times

Andrew Ross

Andrew Ross is Salon's executive vice president.

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