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Russia: Country Says Farewell To Lebed, General, Governor, Presidential Contender

The Krasnoyarsk Krai of Russia is in mourning today for its governor Aleksandr Lebed, one of Russia's best-known generals and a former presidential candidate. Lebed died yesterday in a helicopter crash at the age of 52. President Vladimir Putin led tributes, praising Lebed as a strong and courageous man who devoted his life to serving his country. He is perhaps best remembered for having refused to deploy his troops against opponents to the 1991 coup, and for negotiating a settlement to the first Chechen war.

Prague, 29 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- In his 1997 memoirs, Aleksandr Lebed, who died yesterday in a helicopter crash, tells of the brawl that gave him one of his distinguishing features, his flattened "boxer's" nose. The teenage Lebed had gone to do some farm work during school vacation. Some local soccer rivals, sore at being beaten by Lebed's team, came back for revenge as soon as it got dark.

"I jumped up and ran outside to help my classmates," Lebed wrote. "But before I had time to make a fist, I was hit in the face with a fence post and lost consciousness."

Lebed's nose was broken and pushed to one side, but that didn't bother him, he said. "I was no girl. I knew a man needed to be only slightly better-looking than an ape and that a man's true worth wasn't defined by the prettiness of his face."

In another passage from his early life, Lebed told how he punched out a student who got him into trouble for using crib notes during an exam.

This image of a straight-talking bruiser, ready to fight when honor is at stake, put Lebed in good stead later in life, when he swapped his general's uniform for a career in politics.

At time of his death yesterday at age 52, Lebed was the governor of Krasnoyarsk Krai, a post he occupied since winning election in 1998. But before retreating to the relative obscurity of Siberia, he played a role in many of the key events that shaped Russia in the late 1980s and early 1990s as a commander in the Soviet Union's Afghan campaign, the general who refused to deploy his troops to support the failed 1991 coup in Moscow, the presidential candidate who challenged Boris Yeltsin in 1996, and the negotiator who helped end the first Chechen war.

President Vladimir Putin praised Lebed as a "strong and courageous man, a real soldier who devoted his whole life to serving his country."

Today Putin opened a meeting to coordinate this year's census by asking for a minute's silence. "As a result of an air catastrophe, our comrade, our colleague, one of the brightest, most original politicians of contemporary Russia, the governor of Krasnoyarsk region, Aleksander Ivanovich Lebed, tragically died. Let us honor his memory with a minute's silence."

Aleksander Ivanovich Lebed was born in 1950 in Novocherkassk, in southwest Russia.

He was determined early on to be a pilot, but a series of injuries and operations meant he failed the medical exams and he decided to become a paratrooper instead. When his father advised him to try it out first, he had to bribe the instructor of a local aeronautics club with four bottles of vodka to let him parachute -- then promptly broke his tailbone on his first jump.

In the early 1980s, Lebed served with distinction as a commander in the Soviet Union's failed Afghan campaign. After he rose to head the Tula paratroop division in 1988, Lebed took part in operations in various "hot spots" -- quelling unrest in Baku and Tbilisi -- that presaged the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

In August 1991, he was hailed as a hero after refusing to deploy his troops in support of the communist hard-liners in their abortive coup attempt against Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

The next year he was credited with helping end the conflict in Moldova between the government and Russian-speaking separatists.

Lebed's outspoken criticism of corruption, his gruff patriotism, pledges to restore public order, and reputation for honesty made him a popular figure, though he was not always clear about the details of his policies.

In 1996, he made a bid for the Kremlin, coming in third behind incumbent Boris Yeltsin and Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov. In the second round he backed Yeltsin, helping to avert a Communist victory, and was rewarded with the position of National Security Council secretary.

That year he held talks with Chechen separatist leaders that resulted in the Khasavyurt peace agreement, ending two years of fighting in the breakaway republic. But within months Yeltsin had dropped him.

In 1998, he was elected governor of Krasnoyarsk. That summer, in an outburst just weeks before Russia's devastating financial crash, he threatened to take control of a missile unit on his territory unless the federal government paid officers their back wages.

He was also tipped as a possible presidential contender in 2000, but in the end declined to run. In 1999, he said this in an interview with RFE/RL: "It is not a question of the president but of the country. Presidents come and go, [but] the country remains. There was Ivan the Terrible, Peter the First [the Great], there was Lenin -- they all went, but the country remained. Now such a time has come into being in the country. In this country, situations periodically arise when one needs to take a certain position in spite of the fact that someone does not like it."

Lebed died yesterday when the helicopter he was traveling in apparently hit a power line and crashed into a snow-covered hillside near Abakan in Krasnoyarsk.

Investigators looking into the crash said today they have recovered both black-box flight recorders. Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu, who is heading the investigation, said yesterday: "The first reports, which we still have to check, say there was poor visibility, which led to a collision with high-voltage power lines. As a result, this tragedy occurred."

Thousands lined up to pay their last respects to Lebed today, filing past his coffin as it lay in state in Krasnoyarsk at the start of two days of official mourning.

Lebed's acting successor, Nikolai Ashlapov, said Lebed will be buried in Moscow's Novodeviche cemetery.