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Russia: Lebed Uses Chechnya Debacle to Criticize Kremlin Opponents

Prague, August 13 (RFE/RL) -- It was the gruff-speaking former army general, Aleksandr Lebed, who once again stole center stage in the theater of Russian politics yesterday.

Obviously reveling in the high drama of his midnight meeting with the Chechen rebel leadership, Lebed returned to the Kremlin in fighting mood.

But the object of his anger was not the Chechens, who have once again succeeded in humiliating the Kremlin, but the Russian bureaucrats in charge of settling the conflict.

At a news conference, Lebed was characteristically blunt and to the point. He praised the Chechens for maintaining their fighting spirit. As for Russian troops, Lebed said he found them in appalling condition; hungry, frail and low on morale.

His greatest criticism, though, was aimed at government officials who he said were guilty of passivity and corruption. He singled out the state commission on Chechnya, headed by Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, which Lebed said had failed to do its job.

But Lebed returned from Chechnya with more than just angry words. He also came with a fresh peace proposal on the table. It is not exactly clear what that plan contains, but the rebels yesterday sounded as if they might be willing to accept it.

Lebed's latest mission, as peacemaker in Chechnya, could be the biggest test yet of his political skills.

His tough-talking, no-nonsense style won him the respect of the Russian people and third place in the first round of the presidential elections. But he still lacks experience in navigating Russia's corridors of power.

Many predicted he would not survive beyond Boris Yeltsin's reelection, which he helped secure. But the skeptics were proved wrong. Not only did he survive, but as national security advisor and head of the Security Council, he quickly set about building his power base.

But there are still doubts about his long-term ability to survive. His naked ambition has already earned him enemies. His latest jibe at Chernomyrdin will not go down well. There has already been already ample evidence of an emerging power struggle between the two men.

Yeltsin, who has been noticeable by his absence since the election, appeared to try and balance the equation.

In a move widely seen as an attempt to clip the wings of the ascending Lebed, he created a defense council and appointed Chernomyrdin as its deputy, giving Lebed a relatively low status as an ordinary member.

Analysts said the creation of the council was a major set back to Lebed's aspirations and a sign that the Security Council, which he heads, would be significantly weaker than he had hoped.

This may not turn out to be the case.

Yesterday, Lebed again called for his powers to be extended to oversee a Chechen settlement. He said Yeltsin would sign a decree within 48 hours to that effect.