- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 1, 2002

For a brief moment he looked like a potential Master of the Kremlin, but he ended up only one of its many has-beens.

Former paratroop Gen. Alexander Lebed, who died in a Siberian helicopter crash Sunday, briefly held the destiny of Russia in the palm of his hand in 1996, but he proved utterly out of his depth in the complexities of national politics.

It is common to say that many major historical figures are filled with contradictions. Gen. Lebed did not have enough of them. He rose like a meteor or a flaming comet on Russia's kaleidoscope political scene in the early 1990s, and he fell just as fast.

He started out as a Slavic Clint Eastwood, tough as nails and a man of few words but every one of them sharp, witty and wise. But he ended up a Russian Woody Allen, a motor mouth who could not stop talking compulsively and often ridiculously about everything.

Ridiculously over-rated at first especially by Western reporters and conservative pundits and politicians in Washington he ended up being under-rated, a man of striking originality and ideas who saw some of them adopted without him and others consigned to the trash can of history.

Gen. Lebed was only 52 when his helicopter crashed into a power cable in a remote part of the huge, resource-rich Russian province, or oblast, of Krasnoyarsk that he had run his critics claimed, into the ground for the past four years. But he already had two remarkable careers behind him.

He was a career soldier who rose in Russia's elite paratroop forces and became a national hero in the troubled years of the collapse of communism and its replacement with a still-shaky democracy. He came to national prominence as a military commander crushing secessionist movements and trying to end bloody ethnic clashes in the Caucasus in 1989 as Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika, or restructuring, reform program disintegrated. In 1991 his troops helped Boris Yeltsin, the first president of post-communist Russia, prevent a last-ditch hard-line communist takeover.

His national stature continued to rise in the early 1990s as he helped the embattled Russian ethnic minority in Moldova, a territory Josef Stalin had seized from Romania in the 1940s, carve out its own autonomous, de facto independent territory of Transdniestria. His military successes, youthful dynamism and straight-shooting talk contrasted dramatically with the alcoholic incompetence, endemic corruption and Machiavellian wiles and maneuvers of Mr. Yeltsin and his Kremlin court in Moscow.

In 1996, Gen. Lebed ran a strong and unexpected third behind Mr. Yeltsin and communist candidate Gennady Zyuganov in the first round of Russia's presidential election. Mr. Yeltsin and many others concluded that the president could not hope to defeat Mr. Zyuganov in the second-round run-off vote without the charismatic Gen. Lebed's support.

The two men struck a deal, and Gen. Lebed's support did indeed prove crucial in helping propel Mr. Yeltsin into another term of office. As his reward, Gen. Lebed became secretary of Russia's new Security Council. He rapidly brought Russia's first, disastrous war in Chechnya to an end. He briefly appeared to be the ailing Mr. Yeltsin's natural heir.

Mr. Yeltsin, an exceptionally heavy drinker even by Russian standards, also had a history of heart problems and throughout his second term in office, there was a widespread expectation that he might die at any time. No one then dreamed that he would outlive Gen. Lebed, but so it proved.

The tough, resilient, cunning old muzhik, or peasant, president rapidly succeeded in isolating Gen. Lebed, who made enemies rapidly in the power circles of the new Moscow. Gen. Lebed loved the sound of his own voice, blustered, threatened and threw his weight around. Within months, Mr. Yeltsin had politically isolated and sacked him.

The billionaire oligarchs who had seized the commanding heights of Russia's industries and vast potential natural resources in the Yeltsin era all applauded Gen. Lebed's fall. The general still enjoyed widespread popular support. But he lacked the political intellect and discipline to organize a national party power base. And he also lacked the personal charm and political skills to cut any effective alliance with others who could.

Two years later, in 1998, Gen. Lebed showed he still could command powerful public support by winning election as the governor of Krasnoyarsk, a vast Siberian region larger than France. It gave him an automatic seat on the Federation Council, the upper house of Russia's parliament and, apparently, a regional power base from which he expected to launch a campaign to succeed Mr. Yeltsin. But things did not work out that way.

First, Gen. Lebed proved an incompetent and abrasive governor. He took a region that had enjoyed far more prosperity and protection in relative terms at least from the catastrophic implosion of Russia's economy in the collapse of communism and led it into crisis and chaos. His national reputation plunged.

Then, in August 1999, Mr. Yeltsin appointed a new rime minister, the almost-unknown Vladimir Putin.

Mr. Putin was the antithesis of the big, blustering and blundering heroic soldier Gen. Lebed. Mr. Putin was a veteran security services officer who had risen to command them. He was small but tough and precise. Where Gen. Lebed had the look of a boxer, Mr. Putin was a lifelong expert and devotee of judo. His background and talents proved far better suited to winning power in Moscow and then holding it.

Gen. Lebed was charismatic. Mr. Putin was not. The Russian people had held high hopes for Gen. Lebed. They expected nothing from Mr. Putin. But Mr. Putin got things done. He stabilized Russia's macro-economic situation. For people with jobs, pay started flowing again, and things started getting a bit better. Mr. Putin showed that he could run Russia. Gen. Lebed could not even keep a grip on Krasnoyarsk. He feuded over control of its enormous aluminum industry with oligarch Anatoly Bykov.

Speculation is already swirling in Moscow that his death was not an accident. State Duma member Alexei Arbatov pointedly refused to rule out sabotage as the cause of the fatal helicopter crash. Mr. Putin pledged a "painstaking" probe into its causes.

Gen. Lebed was full of life to the moment he died, but he was also a political has-been. Ironically, he may loom larger in death than he did in life as one of Russia's many might-have-beens, yet another road not taken.


Martin Sieff is senior news analyst for United Press International.

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