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Analysis From Washington: The Other Faces Of Aleksandr Lebed

  • Paul Goble



Washington, June 28 (RFE/RL) -- Aleksandr Lebed, the Russian general whose appointment as head of Boris Yeltsin's Security Council has attracted so much praise, has begun to advance a number of policy ideas that are likely to disturb many in both Russia and the West.

Yeltsin's selection of Lebed immediately after the first round of the Russian presidential vote has drawn praise for two reasons. First, by appointing Lebed, who finished third in the voting, Yeltsin clearly positioned himself to win over most of those who had supported this tough-minded, law-and-order retired general.

But at the same time and perhaps even more importantly, Lebed appeared to be a breath of fresh air at the top of the Yeltsin administration. He was given credit for pushing out his old foe Defense Minister Pavel Grachev and three of Yeltsin's least attractive senior advisors. And Lebed quickly staked out a position on Chechnya -- saying that independence was possible -- that seemed to open the door to more reforms.

In the last several days, however, the retired general has enunciated a number of ideas that will certainly disturb many of those who had been praising him.

In a new security plan released on Wednesday, Lebed suggested that Moscow would classify all countries in the world solely in terms of how friendly they were to Russia. He added that Moscow would tighten passport and visa regimes and employ Russian companies for espionage purposes. And he argued that Russia should refocus its diplomatic efforts toward Asia and especially China.

Then in a speech to a group of Russian patriotic societies on Thursday, Lebed called for a ban on all religious sects. Noting that Russia has three "officially recognized religions: Orthodoxy, Islam and Buddhism," he suggested that there is "no place" for other religious groups. Among those he said should be banned are the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo and the Mormon Church.

Further on in the same speech, he said that Moscow would establish policies to limit "the cultural expansion of the West" in Russia. In particular, he expressed concern about the content of Western movies now "flooding" Russian movie screens and television.

On another front, Lebed suggested that he would back compensation for those whose Soviet-era savings had been wiped out by inflation. "The state must admit: We have robbed you," the general concluded. He indicated that compensation should not come from the printing of money without backing but rather in the form of land or consumer goods.

All of these ideas may play well with Lebed's nationalist constituency, the very voters Yeltsin hopes to attract. But taken together, they point to a very different and far more nationalist Russian future than the one many Russian reformers and Western observers had hoped for.

Before anyone draws apocalyptic conclusions from this, however, three observations are in order: First, up to now, these are only Lebed's proposals. While Yeltsin has not disowned them, neither has he publicly committed himself to the most extreme of these ideas.

Second, and as such, Lebed's words may represent a kind of trial balloon, a testing of the waters. If there is no negative reaction to these ideas or if they receive support, then they become more likely rather than less.

And third, Lebed's own future, even assuming that Yeltsin is reelected as now seems likely, is probably not quite as certain as he is claiming. When he told his audience on Thursday that he is in the inner circle to stay -- "it's not the season when they can use me and then throw me away" -- may have won him points with his audience.

It is less clear whether such boastfulness will ultimately work with Boris Yeltsin.

One thing, however, is now very clear: Aleksandr Lebed has more than one face, and not all of them are equally attractive.
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