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Press Review: The Yeltsin-Lebed Alliance

  • Michael Gallant

Prague, June 19 (RFE/RL) - Western press commentary focuses today on the political alliance between Russian president Boris Yeltsin and General Alexander Lebed, whom Yeltsin named yesterday as his national security adviser. Analysts say that Lebed, who gained nearly 15 percent of the vote in the first round of Sunday's presidential election, could play an important role in Yeltsin's bid to be re-elected in next month's run-off.

The New York Times writes today in an editorial that "with the recruitment of Lebed, Yeltsin has taken a vital step toward winning a second term, whatever day the election is held. . . . Lebed's support could make the difference in a close race against Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist candidate." The editorial continues: "Lebed resigned his military command last year to protest the Russian military campaign in Chechnya. Lebed's views on other issues have been less appealing, including reckless promises early in his campaign to restore the Russian empire. He has since disowned that notion, but a nationalist streak in his defense and foreign policy thinking bears close watching."

Marcus Warren writes today in a news analysis in the London Daily Telegraph: "Gen. Lebed has displayed a considerable talent for politics already: by working his way up the army careers ladder to the rank of general and by imposing a peace settlement in the war-torn region of Trans-Dniester. But he will need skills of a completely different order when, assuming Mr. Yeltsin wins in the second round of the election, he first has to confront the competing clans, coteries and cabals which inhabit the Kremlin. In the context of the Kremlin, Gen. Lebed is a rank outsider." Warren continues: "That was his great advantage in the election. But, as it transpired with Gen. Rutskoi, it could be his greatest weakness when he needs allies to pursue his goals."

Chrystia Freeland writes today in the Financial Times that "some analysts warn that in the snake pit of the Kremlin the 46-year-old general is a novice who will soon fall prey to venomous attacks." Freeland quotes Sergei Markov, a political lecturer at Moscow State University, as saying: "Lebed is truly very unfamiliar with politics and is taking a great risk. But if he launches a serious battle against organized crime, then is forced out of his job, it will be a sacking which will allow him to become president in the year 2000."

An editorial today in the Frankfurter Rundschau says: "what Lebed and his fairy-tale rise to power will bring to Russia is yet unclear.... many doubt that Lebed and Yeltsin will work well together in the Kremlin.... Lebed is also a stranger. His ideas on troop withdrawals and a referendum (for Chechnya) are difficult for Yeltsin to swallow. Yeltsin did not entrust Lebed with the Caucasus operation. How long this marriage between the two men lasts remains to be seen."

The London Guardian says today in a news analysis that the "key issue in Mr. Lebed's political gamble is whether he will have the power and the ability to deliver on promises to clean up corruption, clamp down on the mafia, and institute the long-delayed reform of the army."

An editorial today in the London Independent contends that: "Mr. Lebed now has a proven base of electoral support - more than 10 million votes - whereas Mr. Chernomyrdin was humiliated in last December's parliamentary elections. Mr. Yeltsin even hinted yesterday that he regarded Mr. Lebed as a suitable successor as president. That is not surprising, given Mr. Lebed's age (he is only 46), his status as Russia's most popular general, and the similarities between the two men's political views and instincts."

Ray Moseley, writing today a news analysis in the Chicago Tribune, says: "Two days ago, he (Lebed) finished a distant third on the ballot. Now he is the newest major figure on the world stage. Yeltsin needs Lebed, and the nearly 15 percent of the vote that he amassed in Sunday's election, to win a majority in the presidential runoff election next month against Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov." Moseley continues: "Lebed has made no secret of his deep, personal dislike for Yeltsin and his leadership style, yet he believes a Communist revival would be a greater disaster for the country. Lebed sought to explain why he spurned the heated overtures from (Communist party candidate Gennady) Zyuganov. He said, 'I was facing two ideas, an old one that has shed lots of blood and a new one that is being implemented very badly at the moment but has a future. I have chosen the new idea.' "

The Wall Street Journal Europe writes today on the possible impact Lebed's first-round voters will have in the runoff election. "Though Mr. Lebed captured almost 15%, his supporters are a mixed group, whose common interest is desire for order, according to exit polls conducted Sunday by the U.S.-based Mitofsky International. Public opinion experts here (in Moscow) find it hard to predict whether Mr. Lebed's constituents will follow him into the Yeltsin camp, or swing toward Mr. Zyuganov, whose campaign has promised return to a more rigidly governed society."

The London Times says today in an editorial that: "Mr. Lebed hardly comes across as a liberal. Blunt to a fault, he speaks the language of the mailed fist. Although he insists that a free press is essential to the democratic process and supports jury trials, he has said that Russia is still so chaotic that 'we are going to have to use authoritarian methods to force people to build democracy.' Mr. Lebed, may not, however, be as alarming as this might seem. First, he is no friend of the all-powerful State. Instead, he calls for its role to be cut back to core responsibilities, defense, law and order and essential social and educational services."

Lee Hockstader writes an analysis today in the Washington Post. He says that Lebed is "a tough-talking pragmatist far more concerned with the Russian military's internal problems than with great questions of global strategy." Hockstader continues: "But with no experience in government and not much in politics, it remains to be seen whether Lebed can translate his popularity and appeal as a maverick into real solutions. Does he have the administrative skill to carry out military reform? The diplomatic finesse to settle the war in Chechnya? The appreciation for civil rights and rule of law to tackle crime and corruption? Some have doubts."