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Russia: Analysis From Washington: Coup Charge Claims First Victim

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 18 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Once again, political change at the pinnacle of Russian political life has come not via the ballot box or normal parliamentary maneuver but rather as the result of backroom political conspiracies and murky public charges.

And that continuing pattern can provide little encouragement for those who hope that Russia is well on the road to becoming a stable, open, and democratic society.

The sad facts of this week's drama are these: On Thursday, ailing President Boris Yeltsin sacked his national security chief and erstwhile political ally Aleksandr Lebed following charges by the latter's political opponents that the popular general was preparing a coup d'etat.

Little evidence has been presented to suggest that there is any substance to these charges against Lebed by Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov, who bitterly opposed the retired general's efforts to make peace in Chechnya. And there are compelling reasons to believe that no coup was likely.

On the one hand, Kulikov's suggestion that Lebed planned to use Chechen units to stage this coup is about as improbable a notion as it is possible to imagine.

On the other, Kulikov's statement that any military coup in Moscow was likely flies in the face of the historical record: Unlike many other militaries, the Russian army has no tradition of intervening in politics in that way.

The Russian army lacks the infrastructure and quite possibly the effective power needed to rule a country that extends over eleven time zones.

And there is a widespread fear among Russian military men as well as ordinary Russians that any attempted coup could lead to the disintegration of the Russian Federation just as the failed August 1991 coup led to the unraveling of the Soviet Union.

Why then were these charges made? Why has Yeltsin had to make use of them? And what will be their consequences for Russian power and policy in the future?

Kulikov's personal motives for making them are obvious: Lebed had savaged him for his role in the Chechen debacle and demanded that the interior minister be fired. Kulikov could thus only gain by besmirching if not destroying the man who opposed him on Chechnya.

But Yeltsin's dismissal of Lebed suggests that Kulikov may have been playing an even bigger role. The ailing Russian president has said in public that he is disturbed by the infighting among his top aides, even though he himself has sometimes sponsored it in order to maintain his position.

Moreover, there has been growing evidence that Yeltsin has been concerned about the enormous popularity of his national security chief especially given the president's own decline in the polls and the latter's propensity for speaking his mind and displaying his ambitions to become president after Yeltsin.

In such a situation, Yeltsin faced a difficult dilemma: If he left Lebed in office, the ailing president would likely face even more serious insubordination in the future. But if he simply fired Lebed, the popular general might become an even more dangerous opponent outside the government than he has been within it.

Consequently, if Yeltsin wanted to eliminate this threat to his own power, he would need to destroy the general politically. And what better way than to accuse him of precisely the crimes that Yeltsin's first vice president Aleksandr Rutskoy was actually guilty of?

Kulikov may have understood this intuitively, or he may have played a role assigned by Yeltsin or by some other Lebed opponents in the Kremlin.

Like so much in the Lebed affair, that is likely to remain obscure for a long time to come, but three things are already clear:

Yeltsin's exploitation of these charges to oust Lebed is likely to be greeted by some as yet another triumph of democracy in Russia, but in fact it reflects just how far Russia is from becoming one.

Yeltsin's removal of Lebed does not mean that he will scrap the latter's policies in Chechnya or elsewhere, rather just the reverse. Having eliminated the author of these ideas, Yeltsin can only gain by adopting them at the expense of those like Kulikov who helped him politically but were on the other side in policy terms.

Rather than reassuring Russians or Russia's interlocutors abroad, this latest episode of Kremlin corridor politics will only make them more cautious in dealing with a regime where unexpected shifts are the norm rather than the exception.