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Analysis From Washington -- Rutskoy Redux?

  • Paul Goble

Washington, July 2 (RFE/RL) -- In his latest statement, Boris Yeltsin's Security Council Chief Aleksandr Lebed has declared himself a candidate for a position that does not exist: vice president of the Russian Federation.

Speaking on Moscow television on Saturday, the former general said that he wanted to be Yeltsin's vice president and to take responsibility for such tough problems as Chechnya.

In other remarks in the same interview, Lebed said he would favor a coalition government including everyone from Vladimir Zhirinovsky's nationalists to Gennady Zyuganov's communists.

The last person to fill the office of Russian vice president was Aleksandr Rutskoy. He was removed from that post after he led the Supreme Soviet revolt against Yeltsin in October 1993. In the constitution approved two months after that, the position of vice president was eliminated.

Lebed's latest remark, coming on top of his proclamation last week of Russian superiority in all things and his attack on various religious groups, inevitably recalls the behaviour of Rutskoy three years ago. Even more, it highlights some eery parallels between the two men.

Both Lebed and Rutskoy were popular generals whom Yeltsin added to his team in order to gain the support of Russians looking for tough measures against crime and corruption.

Both were initially thought by many in Russia and the West to be the quintessential political outsiders, capable of being the brooms who could sweep away corruption and win support for Yeltsin's reforms.

And both quickly demonstrated that they were both ambitious and incautious, frequently making statements that highlighted their own limited natures and forming alliances with some of the very worst people in the Russian political spectrum.

Ultimately, Rutskoy became the standard bearer not of the man who chose him as his running mate but of precisely those groups -- old-line communists and hard-line nationalists -- who hated everything his boss was about.

And in October 1993, it was Rutskoy who led the October 1993 Supreme Soviet revolt against Yeltsin and Yeltsin's decision to disband prorogue the Supreme Soviet, a holdover from the days of the USSR.

Even if he wanted to, Lebed would seem to have little opportunity to go as far as Rutskoy did three years ago, but tragically his trajectory up to now seems all too similar. For one reason, the parallels between the two men do not extend to the end. Rutskoy was the constitutionally enshrined vice president; Lebed is merely the head of the Security Council, a position which he occupies only as long as Yeltsin wants him there.

Further, Russian politics today is more institutionalized than it was in 1993, and the possibilities for a repetition of the events of 1993 are much reduced. Under the current constitution, the president is much stronger and the parliament much weaker than was the case three years ago.

And even the chance that Lebed might launch some serious power grab in the Kremlin is probably remote. In addition to the general's own incautious remarks, Lebed has demonstrated that he lacks the kind of political skills that Kremlin infighting would seem to require.

One person who should be in the best position to know -- Aleksandr Rutskoy -- has already reached a conclusion about that. In a radio interview following Lebed's interview, Rutskoy said that Lebed "won't get anywhere. He will fight neither corruption nor crime, and will not carry out army reform either."

"I've been down that road," Russia's last vice president said, "and I know very well the workings of the Kremlin kitchen."