Aleksandr Lebed, the Krasnoyarsk governor and former general who served as national security tsar in Boris Yeltsin’s Kremlin, died in a helicopter accident on April 28. According to Nikolai Ashlapov, Lebed’s first deputy, who has taken over as acting Krasnoyarsk governor, the accident took place when Lebed’s Mi-8 helicopter hit an electric power line while he was traveling to a southern district of his region with members of his administration and journalists for the opening of a new ski slope. Twenty people were on board; eight died as a result of the crash, including Lebed, who passed away while on route to the hospital.
President Vladimir Putin, who sent a telegram to Lebed’s family expressing his condolences and eulogized Lebed as a “brilliant, strong and brave person” and a “true soldier,” has set up a special commission to investigate the helicopter crash, headed by Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu. Lebed will be buried in Moscow’s Novodevichy Cemetery, where such Russian and Soviet luminaries as Nikolai Gogol, Yury Gagarin and Nikita Khrushchev are buried (NTVru.com, April 29; RBN, RBK, Polit.ru, RTR, April 28).
Aleksandr Lebed was born in 1950 in Novocherkassk. He graduated from the Ryazan Higher School of Airborne Forces in 1973 and from the Frunze Military Academy in 1985. He was a battalion commander in Afghanistan. His first overtly political action came during the abortive coup of August 1991, when his airborne battalion sided with the coup opponents led by Boris Yeltsin. In June 1992 he became commander of the 14th army, which played a controversial role in the conflict in Moldova’s Transdniester region. In 1995, Lebed left the army after coming into conflict with then Defense Minister Pavel Grachev and entered politics, joining the nationalist Congress of Russian Communities. He entered the country’s presidential race the following year, coming in third in the first round of voting and then throwing his support to Yeltsin. Following his re-election, Yeltsin named Lebed secretary of the Kremlin’s Security Council and national security adviser. It was in his capacity as Russia’s national security tsar that Lebed sat down with Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov and signed the Khasavyurt agreements ending the first Chechen war. Lebed’s growing popularity and unwillingness to play a subordinate role put him on a collision course with his boss and other influential Kremlin players, and he was fired from his posts in October 1996. In 1998, Lebed ran successfully for governor of Krasnoyarsk Krai (ORT, April 28).
While most observers seem to have accepted what appears to be the case–that Lebed was the victim of a tragic accident–Boris Berezovsky, the self-exiled oligarch, who according to many accounts backed Lebed’s campaign for the Krasnoyarsk governorship, hinted that foul play might have been involved. Berezovsky said that no possible explanation for the accident’s cause should be ruled out, including what he said would be the worst-case scenario–sabotage (Radio Ekho Moskvy, April 28).
While it is difficult now to predict the political consequences of Lebed’s death, the situation in Krasnoyarsk, which is already unstable, will likely become even more so. Aleksei Arbatov, deputy chairman of the State Duma’s defense committee and a member of Yabloko, warned that Lebed’s death could “criminalize” the situation in Krasnoyarsk, especially during the campaign to elect a new governor. Arbatov noted that in a region like Krasnoyarsk, the governor is “a figure on whom much depends,” including “the lives and fates” of various powerful groups and individuals. Like Berezovsky, Arbatov suggested that Lebed’s death might not have been accidental. “Over many years… the governor was drawn into fights that went on between groups, frequently criminal ones, and around huge property,” Arbatov said. “Undoubtedly Lebed had many enemies, including influential ones” (NTVru.com, April 28).
The Russian media has already begun discussing who might succeed Lebed, who faced running for re-election a year from now. Among those named are Aleksandr Uss, chairman of the Krasnoyarsk Krai’s legislative assembly; Pyotr Pimashkov, mayor of the city of Krasnoyarsk; and Aleksandr Khloponin, governor of the Taimyr Autonomous District (RIA Novosti, April 28). According to Russian law, if the head of a Russian Federation subject, for whatever reason, leaves office before his term is up, a new election has to be announced within fourteen days of his leaving office and must take place no earlier than seventy days after and no later than 180 days after the announcement is made (Kommersant, April 29).
STATE TELEVISION SHOWS FOOTAGE OF KHATTAB’S BODY.