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Russia: American Scholars Consider The Firing Of General Lebed

Washington, 18 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- A group of influential American scholars says the firing of Russian security chief Aleksandr Lebed will likely do little to diminish the general's popularity among the Russian population at large and may, in fact, help him become a powerful opposition leader with clear presidential ambitions.

One of those scholars, Peter Reddaway, a professor of history at George Washington University in Washington, told RFE/RL that President Boris Yelstin's firing of Lebed did not come as a surprise to him.

What was much more interesting, said Reddaway, was the timing.

"I think it came as early as this because Lebed decided ... to take as much power as he could, within certain limits, to try and show the Russian people he was being faithful to what he interprets as his mandate -- to end the war in Chechnya, to bring serious military form to the armed forces, and to combat official corruption and organized crime," said Reddaway.

Reddaway said he thinks Lebed agreed to a position in the Yelstin government in the first place -- even suspecting that it would be short-lived -- because it offered him a chance to get high-level media exposure and help him build political capital for the future.

Lebed's firing will probably only enhance his stature among the population, added Reddaway, especially if members of the government try to villanize him in the next few days and weeks.

Jack Matlock, former ambassador to Russia, agrees. He told CNN that Lebed is a "straight-talking, military man" who has a reputation for honesty and who has used the issues of law and order, corruption and the war in Chechyna to increase his popularity.

"I think his popularity is definitely growing," said Matlock. "This makes others in the government very nervous because they look at him as a potential challenger."

Helmut Sonnenfeldt, former national security council member during the Nixon administration, told RFE/RL that he also believed the firing of Lebed would only strengthen the general's position.

"It was obvious that there were a lot of maneuverings going on, accusations and counter-accusations. But I was inclined not to credit the more extravagant ones. However, Yeltsin seems to have been persuaded that ... this wasn't just infighting with verbal blasts, but apparently something more concrete."

Sonnenfeldt said the firing came as a surprise to him.

"I thought, perhaps naively, that there was some sort of understanding among those aspiring to be Yelstin's successor, that they would do it by constitutional means when they got to that point, such as incapacitation or death," Sonnenfeldt said.

He added that he was puzzled by Lebed's bold political maneuvering, especially since he had such strong public support and could have "well afforded to have bided his time and taken his chances in an election."

Reddaway agrees.

"It will be far more difficult for him now to operate outside of the political arena," he said. "He won't get so much coverage from the media. But he will have a fairly clear goal, which is to run for the presidency at the first suitable opportunity."

Raymond Garthoff, a senior scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington, told RFE/RL that it is now critical for Lebed to act on his popularity and translate it into making him a powerful opposition figure who could effectively challenge Yeltsin for the presidency.

Reddaway urged a note of caution, however, saying that no matter how popular Lebed may be, he still runs the risk of becoming a target for political assassination.

"I think he will continue to be in danger -- for as long as he has political ambitions -- of being assassinated by members of the establishment who regard him as very dangerous to the status quo and those who have a vested interest in prolonging the status quo," said Reddaway. "A criminalized economic system and a semi-criminalized political system see an enormous threat from Lebed. Ultimately, they can only be secure if Lebed is either neutralized ... or dead."

He added: "But in the end, I think Lebed's long-term political prospects are not reduced by what has happened, and in fact, they've probably been increased."