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
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
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
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)