Alexander Lebed

First we will act, then we will explain.

Alexander Lebed, 1995

Part I. Biography and Image

Lt. Gen. Alexander Ivanovich Lebed (ret.) traded his military uniform for a politician's suit on May 30, 1995, resigning his position as the commander of the 14th Russian Army based in Moldova. By the beginning of the summer, he was one of the most popular politicians in Russia. 45-year-old Lebed is a charismatic figure whose dry wit and brusque, no-nonsense style sets him apart from most of the familiar faces of Moscow's political elite. One widely cited Public Opinion Foundation poll from July showed that if Lebed and Yeltsin faced each other in a runoff, Lebed would garner 38% of the vote and Yeltsin only 8%. But, as potential Russian voters became more familiar with him, his popularity fell to the level of Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky, and Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov, according to a later poll by the same organization.

Lebed has participated in most of the former Soviet Union's and Russia's military conflicts for the last fifteen years. He fought in Afghanistan in 1981-82. He was part of the forces that quelled unrest in the Caucasus: after the anti-Armenian pogrom in Sumgait in the autumn of 1988, the crackdown in Tbilisi in April 1989, and the occupation of Baku in January 1990. During the 1991 coup, Lebed was sent with his troops from Tula to occupy Moscow. He helped to prevent an attack on Yeltsin's headquarters in the White House of Russia, although he later claimed that he did not take sides during the conflict, and would have carried out a direct order to take the White House.

In June 1992, Lebed assumed the leadership of Russia's 14th Army in Moldova, as the fighting between the Moldovans and the separatists in the Dniester Moldovan Republic reached its peak. In the confrontation between Yeltsin and the Supreme Soviet in September-October 1993, Lebed rejected appeals for help from both camps, declaring on local Tiraspol television that the military should remain neutral in such situations.

Many voters see Lebed as an honest and effective patriot who can stop the collapse of the government while curbing crime and corruption. Lebed's greatest achievement was to use military force in Moldova to stop an ethnic conflict that had cost hundreds of lives. As the commander of the Russian troops, he made clear that his sympathies lay on the side of the ethnic Russian population. Nationalists credited him with preventing a "second Croatia" (i.e. the expulsion of Russians from Moldova.) However, he soon fell out with the local Russians in Moldova after accusing the president of the pro-Russian Dniester Moldovan Republic, Igor Smirnov, and his colleagues of corruption. He told a press conference at the time that he was "sick and tired of guarding the sleep and safety of crooks."

Lebed also appeals to Russian voters as an outsider who is not responsible for the mess made by the Moscow elite. Although Lebed supported Yeltsin in 1991, he quickly became a critic of his policies, particularly the attempts to negotiate the withdrawal of Russian troops from Moldova. In 1994, he broke with his long-time colleague Defense Minister Pavel Grachev when he criticized him for not reforming the military. Grachev tried to remove him from his post in August 1994, but had to back down when Yeltsin supported Lebed. Although Lebed favored the army's active role in Moldova, he was extremely critical of the decision to intervene militarily in Chechnya. As the campaign began, Lebed sarcastically offered to lead a regiment into battle if it would be made up of the children and grandchildren of "our glorious government and members of the parliament."

Lebed is not entirely new to politics as a profession. In the fall of 1993, he won a seat in the Supreme Soviet of the separatist Dniester Moldovan Republic with 88% of the vote. After the October 1993 violence in Moscow, he demanded the sacking the Dniester Republic's minister for state security and deputy minister for internal affairs who had sent soldiers to defend the White House against Yeltsin's tanks. When his motion failed, he resigned from the Supreme Soviet in protest.

Part II. Views and Political Activity

The general's platform underwent significant transformations during the parliamentary election campaign and the presidential campaign. His first famous ideological statement was his approval of General Augusto Pinochet's success. He argued that "preserving the army is the basis for preserving the government" and that Pinochet was able to revive Chile by "putting the army in first place." He wrote an article where he vigorously opposed arms reductions and implied that Russia may face a serious military confrontation within two or three years. Recently, Lebed has had more praise for General Charles de Gaulle, also a strong leader, but one who has better democratic credentials. However, Lebed is no fan of democracy. In a programmatic article published in Nezavisimaya gazeta, Lebed rejected democracy as harmful for Russia. He asserted that the abundance of political parties "has so clouded the brains of the average citizen" that the results are much worse for the country than its addiction to vodka. As a result, the domestic political situation is "out of control" and has significantly reduced the authorities' ability to find social consensus in resolving Russia's economic and political problems.

To launch his political career in Russia, Lebed chose as his main ally Yuri Skokov, leader of the Congress of Russian Communities (KRO) and a firm advocate of state intervention in the economy. The KRO advocates a brand of nationalist statism that seeks to win voters who oppose President Boris Yeltsin's policies, but do not support any of Russia's numerous extremist parties. Skokov and Lebed hoped to mobilize discontent caused by the pain of introducing market reforms and cutbacks in military spending in favor of a policy that reinvigorates state direction of the economy and strengthens Russia's armed forces.

On October 18, Lebed announced the formation of a new group, Honor and Motherland, whose ostensible purpose is to reform the military.

Lebed has had strong ties to the extreme Communists in the past, joining the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the RSFSR in September 1990 at the nomination of the hard-line Communist Initiative Movement, and recently sought an alliance with Zyuganov's "reformed" party, to no avail. Although some voices in the liberal media have expressed support for Lebed, he has long made clear his distaste for Yeltsin and lately has denounced the economic policies of Yegor Gaidar. In his Nezavisimaya gazeta article, the general called for the creation of a coalition of "left, left-centrist, and patriotic forces," presumably with him as the leader. However, most leftist movements of Russia eventually ended up endorsing Zyuganov in the 1996 presidential campaign.

Lebed has not escaped strong criticism in the Russian press. Some members of the KRO rank-and-file present at its April founding congress called him a "cheap populist" and a "lover of the effective phrase" because of his penchant for presenting his ideas in cryptic aphorisms. An article in the local press describing Lebed's visit to Perm in July denounced his ideas, arguing that "nationalism is always the flag of war" and "the thirst for strict order relies on force which cannot exist without blood."

Congress of Russian Communities received 4.29% of the party list vote (the seventh place, behind the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, the LDPR, Our Home Is Russia, Yabloko, Women of Russia, and Communists of the USSR). The latter two parties are considered close in their views to the Communist Party of the Russian Federation and will not produce successful presidential contenders. (Communists of the USSR have already decided to back Gennady Zyuganov, while one of the leaders of Women of Russia, Yekaterina Lakhova, endorsed Yeltsin in a surprising political move.) Congress of Russian Communities won 5 seats in one-mandate districts and will therefore control 0.01% of the Duma seats. One of their seats was won by Lebed himself, who won twice as many votes as his nearest rival, local Mayor Nikolai Tyaglivy, in a single-mandate constituency in the city of Tula. Lebed announced on December 28, 1995, that he intends to run for president in 1996.

On January 11, the Congress of Russian Communities unanimously nominated Alexander Lebed to run for president in June 1996.

In a bizarre twist of the campaign, Lebed joined the leftist Popular Power, the Duma faction led by former USSR Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov, on January 31, but then quit it on March 5 after Ryzhkov decided to support Gennady Zyuganov for president.

On March 30, Lebed argued that Russia does not need an elected parliament. Instead he called for a "small, highly professional Duma that would be named by the president." Lebed also suggested that the president should submit to a yearly popular referendum and resign if he fails to gain the voters' support. Lebed spoke at the congress of the Democratic Party of Russia which nominated him for president.

Lebed and Svyatoslav Fedorov announced creation of the so-called "third force" alliance and made a couple of joint statements with Yavlinsky (on Chechnya and on the economic integration of the former Soviet republics). Instead of Sergei Glaziev's plan approved by the Congress of Russian Communities, Lebed had referred journalists to Yavlinsky on a couple of occasions when questioned about his economic program.

Alexander Lebed was officially registered on April 19 (1,919,913 signatures of support were turned in by his initiative group).

Alexander Lebed accused President Yeltsin of "betraying" the soldiers in Chechnya, in an article he published in Nezavisimaya Gazeta on April 3. He said Yeltsin erred in launching the recent wave of attacks, in which hundreds of Russian troops were killed, only to sue for peace days later. He said that this stop-and-go policy was reminiscent of the fighting last spring. He urged Yeltsin to push on for the military victory that he considers to be "very close." Lebed said that "doubts can exist only before the beginning of a war... We are fighting not so much for a specific territory but for Russia's national dignity. Russia must announce to the world that it will never again retreat."

In what appeared to be a 180-degree turn in his views on the military reform, Lebed told RFE/RL on April 10 that he would drastically cut the size of Russian military forces if elected president. Recent Western estimates say the Russian army now has 91 divisions, although many are severely undermanned and lacking in combat-readiness. Lebed suggested that Russia now needs only 15 fully-manned regular armored and infantry divisions supplemented by 5-6 airborne brigades, plus 15 reserve divisions. Lebed suggested the Air Force could be reduced from its current level of 6,000 planes to 1,000. Smaller forces would be more effective and less expensive to maintain, the former general contended.

Lebed argued in Izvestia on April 25 that the front-runners are not as different as they appear, since both descended from the same "old communist nomenklatura." Lebed portrayed Zyuganov and other Communist Party leaders as the "younger, unsuccessful but voracious brothers of the current authorities," who no longer believe in the dogma of the Soviet period and merely aspire to gain power. He also argued that Zyuganov plays up his party's staunch opposition to the current government, while Yeltsin plays up the communist threat, but these campaign postures are merely a "game" designed to trick voters. The idea that voters must choose the "lesser of two evils" is a threat to the prospects of third-party candidates.

Generally, after having been rejected by the communists and other leftist parties, Lebed was seemingly drifting towards the liberals with some social-democratic flavor, like Svyatoslav Fedorov and Grigory Yavlinsky.

On May 6, Alexander Lebed denied any interest in the so-called Third Force alliance with candidates Grigory Yavlinsky and Svyatoslav Fedorov, and declared he would run on his own. Lebed said that "Someone gave birth to this idea and it started to fly around in the air in ever decreasing circles...Where did this bird come from? I don't know and I never was interested in it". The Lebed announcement, which came a day after reports that the participants in the Third Force were successfully concluding their negotiations, runs counter to earlier Lebed statements about the desirabilty of the alliance and its imminent conclusion. Yeltsin has met with Lebed shortly before the announcement. For quite a while now, Yeltsin has been expected to dump his unpopular Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev. Yeltsin also met Yavlinsky, and the liberal economist later hinted that he was offered the Prime Minister position, but refused. On May 7, Yavlinsky outlined the conditions on which he would agree to form an alliance with Yeltsin. They include multiple personnel changes in the president's team, the Checnya settlement, and major changes in the economic policy, and are, therefore, extremely unlikely to be met. Notice that Lebed would have reasonably good chances to get approved as the Defense Minister by the State Duma, while Yavlinsky would certainly be rejected as a new Prime Minister.

OMRI reported on May 27 that The Congress of Russian Communities (KRO) voted at an extraordinary congress--held at the request of more than 30 of its regional branches--to remove the movement's leader, Yuri Skokov, and named Dmitri Rogozin in his place. Rogozin holds more radical nationalist views than Skokov. Skokov was blamed for the congress' failure to overcome the 5% barrier in the December Duma election, particularly since Skokov led the ticket and put Alexander Lebed in the number two position. The congress is backing Lebed in the first round of the presidential election. Lebed sent a telegram thanking the KRO for its support and backing steps to strengthen the Russian state, unify the Russian people, and reduce the threat of civil war.

Lebed finished third in the first round with about 15% of the vote and is now out of the presidential race.

He turned his third place into a dramatic comeback on June 18 when President Boris Yeltsin gave him a top security job and sacked his bitter rival in the army. The president ditched his loyal defense minister, Pavel Grachev, a former paratroop comrade whom Lebed blames for forcing him out of the army a year ago. Yeltsin even hinted Lebed could succeed him as president in the year 2000. Lebed, who said 80 percent of his voters would ``understand'' his position, is now secretary of the powerful Security Council and the president's national security adviser.


Materials by Robert W. Orttung and Peter Rutland of Open Media Research Institute.

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