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Lebed Emerges As New Star In Russia's Politics

  • Jeremy Bransten

Prague, June 18 (RFE/RL) - The second stage of Russia's presidential campaign has begun, but few are looking to the two winners of Sunday's first round: incumbent President Boris Yeltsin and Communist challenger Gennady Zyuganov. All eyes are now focused on one figure: the uncorruptible, tough-talking, reserved yet occasionally charming man's man: retired army General Aleksandr Lebed.

They say men admire Lebed for his courage in battle and his uncompromising solutions to Russia's endemic crime and corruption. Women admire his gentlemanly demeanor and his steely good-looks. But politicians admire Lebed's 15 percent showing in Sunday's election. Both Yeltsin and Zyuganov know that without the upright general at their side, victory will be impossible in the decisive second electoral round.

And it appears Yeltsin has succeeded in wooing Lebed by immediately appointing him as head of Russia's powerful security council and as the president's national security adviser. Lebed's nemesis, Defense Minister General Pavel Grachev, has been sacked.

Lebed had earlier indicated he was, in his own words, "a man of the future" who would be unwilling to sacrifice Russia's young democracy for a return to Communism. During this campaign, Lebed also spoke of the need to decentralize power and encourage free enterprise.

Yet his main appeal comes from his image as a crime and corruption fighter. In some respects, Lebed has succeeded in appropriating the attractive law-and-order elements of ultra-nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky's program and melding them with the anti-Chechen war, pro-market policies of economist Grigory Yavlinsky.

Lebed thus appeals to Russia's emerging middle class, which has profited from market reforms but has grown disenchanted by the accompanying government corruption and growing rate of crime. He also appeals to those who yearn for the order and security of socialism but no longer believe the promises of the sour and graying Communist Party.

In short, Lebed encapsulates most Russians' ambiguous feelings about the past five years of reform. Aside from the Communists' 30 percent hard core of supporters, most Russians value their new freedoms, but are deeply troubled by rampant corruption and the lack of economic security.

Few are enthusiastic about Yeltsin or Zyuganov, voting for one or the other as the "lesser of two evils." The gadfly Zhirinovsky managed to exploit this feeling to his benefit through two parliamentary elections. But he is not presidential material.

Lebed, on the other hand, looks the part and he even says he soon could be. The newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda once compared Lebed to the old Yeltsin: a courageous whistle-blower who stood up to the Kremlin and struck a chord with the Russian people.

Heroes do not last long in Russia - especially once they get inside the Kremlin. Will Lebed remain incorruptible in power? And will he be effective in his campaign to root out crime and corruption? That remains to be seen in the months ahead.

But for now, Lebed the general must win victory for Yeltsin on the electoral battlefield. He has no doubts. As he told reporters recently, "I was born to win."

(Simon Saradzhyan in Moscow has contributed to this report)