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Lebed In Kremlin Power Struggle

Prague, July 16 (RFE/RL) -- Like every newcomer to a job Aleksandr Lebed has had to make his presence felt. But while his brash, no-nonsense style went down well with the military it has not met the same reception inside the Kremlin.

Even before the election Lebed was hinting that he saw himself as the next president of Russia. Asked by a German magazine if he would be a contender for the leadership in the year 2,000 he replied, "Maybe even sooner."

Comments like these inevitably put Lebed on a collision course with other top officials, including Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin.

Under the constitution Chernomyrdin takes over if the president is ill or incapacitated. Given Yeltsin's age and health problems that prospect is never far off. Some analysts see Chernomyrdin as Yeltsin's heir apparent.

When Lebed, still glowing from his success in the first round of elections entered the Kremlin as Yeltsin's new security supremo, a visible power struggle between the two men soon emerged.

Quickly moving to consolidate his power, Lebed suggested broader powers for the security council, which he heads, to include economic and social matters. He even suggested being made vice-president, a post abolished in 1993.

This prompted a public rebuff from Chernomyrdin, a former gas industry boss who has overseen the economy since 1992. He said the vice-presidency was not needed and that as far as his own responsibilities were concerned he did not intend giving them away to anyone.

Lebed for his part denied there was any rift between them. He told the Itar tass news agency last week there were "no disagreements" and "each person was doing his own job."

But it is not just Chernomyrdin that Lebed risks antagonizing with his bold quest for power. Ultimately he may also incur the wrath of his sponsor Boris Yeltsin.

Some analysts have already predicted an early downfall for Lebed saying he was just part of Yeltsin's strategy to get re-elected. Once victory was secured, they said, he would be dropped anyway.

So far this has not proved to be the case but Lebed is still walking on a tightrope.

Among his enemies are those officials sacrificed to make way for his arrival - men such as Yeltsin's long-time bodyguard and confidant Aleksandr Korzhakov. Yeltsin's wife Naina said losing him was like losing a limb or a family member.

Although Korzhakov's official role is now unclear it seems likely that he will remain part of the presidential entourage. If he does still have the president's ear he is not likely to have many good words for the man who helped unseat him.

Is Lebed politically naive? If so, his naivete will no doubt leave him wide open to Kremlin plots and counter-plots.

As security council chief one of his main tasks will be to find a peaceful settlement to the war in Chechnya. It could turn out to be a poison chalice.

Whatever Lebed's political fate may be, it is unlikely many outsiders will really know about it before it happens. Now as before Russian politics is still a dogfight fought under the carpet.