Publication: Prism Volume: 2 Issue: 13

Can General Lebed Save Russia?

By Sergei Oznobishchev

Both Communist rule and democratic rule have proven to have seriousflaws in Russia. It took Communist rule 70 years to discredititself while, due to the activities of Boris Yeltsin and his entourage,five years has been enough for the public to come to perceivethe term "democrat" as a curse word.

The society has come almost to crave a "third force"free from the shortcomings characteristic of the Communists andthe democrats.

Grigory Yavlinsky’s attempt to fill this niche was abortive: Beingan intellectual and a person who never occupied any high (or noticeable)positions but only criticized the authorities Mr. Yavlinsky waspoorly suited for the role of "public defender." Nevertheless,he is still popular with a certain part of the electorate, mainlythose of non-proletarian origin.

Therefore, if one holds to the standpoint of Marx and his understandingof the role of the individual in history, the appearance of GeneralAleksandr Lebed as a fairy-tale hero and people’s defender fromunfair rulers — was objectively pre-determined by historicalconditions.

However, being called for by the masses was insufficient. Thoseon "top" also came to need an independent minded figurewho could be quickly made popular and pushed into the politicalarena. They saw themselves that the president was unable aloneto beat the candidate of the People’s-Patriotic Bloc, CommunistGennadi Zyuganov. According to available information, in late1995 Boris Yeltsin enjoyed the support of a miserable 5 percentof the electorate.

The members of the president’s team calculated that Gen. Lebedwas best fit for the role of a "reinforcement" to helpbeat the Communists. Indeed, Aleksandr Lebed had already won onewar — he stopped the bloodshed in Trans-Dniester. Besides, hefought "for truth" against then-defense minister PavelGrachev, a fight which won him a lot of public sympathy. Furthermore,unlike "ever-vacillating" Yavlinsky, Aleksandr Lebeddid not impose any preliminary conditions on the president andhad the potential to deliver far more additional votes to BorisYeltsin.

The plan for using Lebed to help the president was worked outat the beginning of the year. In light of the poor showing ofthe Congress of Russian Communities (Aleksandr Lebed was on theslate of this party at that time) in the December 1995 State Dumaelection (CRC failed to surmount the 5 percent barrier to enterthe Duma as a faction), Aleksandr Lebed (who was elected to theDuma as a single-member district candidate) found himself in theparliament without any hope of winning a noticeable and independentpolitical role. However, in the beginning of 1996, an offer ofsupport came to Aleksandr Lebed from former secretary of stateGennadi Burbulis, who performs certain delicate missions for theKremlin. Besides, former senior vice premier, Anatoly Chubais,emerged from oblivion and became an influential force in BorisYeltsin’s election campaign, finding and providing colossal sumsof money.

Aleksandr Lebed was given everything what he needed for organizinga full-fledged campaign: Structures for campaigning in the provinces,cash (according to some estimates Lebed received up to $20 million),air time and the support of the local authorities in organizinghis tours around the country. The ambitious general did not rejectthe assistance understanding fairly well that he would have topay off the "debt."

The nation-wide agitation and propaganda designed to create (forAleksandr Lebed) the image of people’s defender and Russian patriotgave an amazing result — Lebed received 15 percent of the votesin the first round of the election, ranking third after BorisYeltsin and Gennady Zyuganov, and leaving other contenders farbehind. Grigory Yavlinsky received less than 8 percent of thevotes and Vladimir Zhirinovsky (not so long ago a bugaboo forcivilized Europe and America) — a miserable 6.5 percent of thevotes.

In order to prevent Aleksandr Lebed from allying with the Communists,Boris Yeltsin, even before the first round of the election, offeredLebed the post of Security Council Secretary; shortly afterwards,Lebed was offered the post of president’s National Security Advisorwith broad power to supervise the force ministries. Moreover,a hint was made to the effect that Lebed could become vice-president.The General broke down and agreed to take the offered positions.After the first round of the election, Lebed declared his fullsupport of the president. The second round of the election wasa very important moment for Lebed: Had the gap between Yeltsinand Zyuganov turned out to be small, the question could well havearisen as to his true weight in politics. For the time being,all Lebed’s influence rests on president’s "word of honor."The president has appointed him and the president may as well…However, in his pre-election interview granted to Interfax, BorisYeltsin stressed that Aleksandr Lebed enjoys the support of millionsof voters and is supposed to work in the government team seriouslyand for a long time. Boris Yeltsin added that Aleksandr Lebedis able to combat crime and see to it that proper order is establishedin the country. (see Nezavisimaya gazeta, July 2, 1996)

It is very important to understand that Lebed, with all his meritsand distinguished services, was used by the presidential teamespecially to achieve a specific purpose. But today another aspecthas become important: Will Lebed take up his own line, will hebe able to act independently, what will this independence includeand what results will Lebed’s independent action have for thecountry and the people?

Certain steps taken by Aleksandr Lebed are striking in their decisiveness.For example, hardly had he assumed the office of Security CouncilSecretary than he immediately fired two deputy secretaries ofthe Council justifying his decision on the grounds that he didnot need them. It has to be noted, that the two fired officialswere experienced employees, while Lebed, as a new man in the Council,may have simply failed to understand their qualifications andpotential. He had apparently taken this action on someone’s advicewhich means that Aleksandr Lebed may be susceptible to makingdecisions under influence without considering all the "pros"and "contras."

Lebed’s plans are even more decisive. The reforms he is goingto implement are aimed, in the first place, at raising the roleof the Security Council so that the Security Council can supervisethe activities of the country’s main force ministries, specificallyregarding the issues of combating organized crime, repatriationand "optimal use of the assets currently hidden, includingin foreign countries, from taxation, ensuring "the country’sfood security," etc. Besides, plans call for the SecurityCouncil to coordinate the use of "the resources at the disposalof the country’s force structures and finance structures."(see Nezavisimaya gazeta June 29, 1996)

Incidentally, regarding the latter the General has (willinglyor unwittingly) come to contradict himself. In his interview AleksandrLebed tirelessly emphasizes that we have one sacred law — theConstitution of the Russian Federation. (see "Moment Istiny"television program, June 30, 1996); only looking back at the constitution,he stresses, can new laws be adopted. At the same time, he seriouslyintends to have the Security Council transformed into a sort ofa "super-ministry," while the Constitution and the Lawon Security provide for the Security Council to be just a consultativestructure attached to the president of Russia.

What does Lebed’s program actually imply today?

In the spheres of internal affairs and the economy, Lebed definitelyadvocates a free market, however, with government regulation.He is concerned mainly to fill the State Treasury. To achievea boost in investments in the economy, according to Lebed, itis necessary to "strengthen the role of the state as a guarantorof the investments." Besides, such an increased role, Lebedmaintains, will be necessary for exercising proper control overtaxation and control of the use of government funds. The systemof taxation should become as simple as possible and taxes shouldstimulate production, not "suffocate it." It is necessaryto set things straight in the banking system so that "depositorswill not be defrauded." The secret services should be orderedto carry out certain intelligence missions in the spheres of economyand technology and their activities should in the first placebe oriented toward asserting Russia’s economic interests.

Ultimately, things should be arranged so that it is "moreprofitable to work than to steal." The state should becomea guarantor of economic property and the results of legally validatedtransactions. It should be more convenient to pay taxes than toevade paying them. The number of laws should be sensible and allthe citizens should be equally obliged to obey the laws. Withoutquestioning the results of the privatization in the country, AleksandrLebed still considers it necessary to "set things straight,in a civilized way" concerning the violations which tookplace.

The main condition for this plan of reforms to be a success isthe combating of crime and corruption. It is necessary to eliminatethe "danger of our country developing into a criminal society."

According to Lebed, the military-industrial complex (MIC) is oneof the few "strong points" of Russia’s technologicaland export potential in the coming century. However, Lebed’s programspeeches fail to contain a single word about the necessity radicallyto reform the MIC which, in the form Russia inherited it fromthe former USSR, is excessively large and often inefficient. Atthe same time, Lebed says a lot about Army reform. It is necessary,he maintains, to establish at least a core of Russia’s mobilecorps. He believes that in conditions where a properly functioningstate system is established, no additional funds will be requiredfor these purposes. Lebed insists that it is necessary to havethe Army regain its former high status in the society, to putan end to "irresponsible experiments" with the Army,including stopping the war in Chechnya. The latter is supposedto be achieved by withdrawing the troops from that republic, buildingan "impregnable" border between Russia and Chechnya,and holding a referendum in that republic in which its peoplewill decide the future status of their republic. The General who"had once had a war stopped" promises to "eliminatethe very prerequisites" of inter-ethnic conflicts. The peopleare prone to believe promises made by such a man.

As for the sphere of foreign relations, Lebed’s positions havebeen formulated only in general terms. He wants to give priorityto the restoration and strengthening of traditional ties withRussia’s natural allies. He calls attention to the necessity tolook for new strategic partners and the need to stop the furtherincrease of Russia’s external debt and to put an end to the "shamefulpractice" of selling our newest arms and technologies toRussia’s potential adversaries. However, the development of theexport segment of Russia’s MIC is also given priority.

It is difficult to guess what criteria might be used to identifyRussia’s "potential adversaries." In the first place,such efforts are a step to returning to the Cold War mentality.Secondly, it is planned to introduce or "carry out a classificationof the countries of the world with regard to the degree of theirfriendliness towards Russia." This apparently is mainly designedto introduce a stricter visa and passport regime and figure outvarious "favorable conditions" in order to "preventterrorism, drug trafficking or smuggling of strategic raw materials."

It is absolutely clear that in the form it exists today the programof Aleksandr Lebed is a rather eclectic combination of statements.However, due to his decisiveness and enthusiasm, his goals canbe achieved quickly. Lebed has reported the completion of thedrafting of a National Security Conception. During several previousyears, the Security Council failed to prepare this document.

A lot in the image of the general-politician arouses respect andsympathy. At the same time, a lot arouses concern: The combinationof decisiveness and (for the time being) insufficient competence,his fondness for simplified schemes for "making the statehealthier" (we have already experienced such in our history);and, as a particular case, his high appraisal of Pinochet’s methodsfor reforming a country. Apparently, those who advertised thisprescription for Lebed forgot about the "costs" of itsimplementation, specifically reprisals against dissent and hundredsof thousands being forced to emigrate from Chile.

Nevertheless, a scheme for reforming the country and its economyis taking shape which (scheme) can be called an authoritarianmodernization. This fact also arouses a concern. A newcomer inpolitics, Lebed might turn out to be too susceptible to the influenceof his changing entourage.

Lebed insists that today he lacks the necessary powers to implementhis grandiose plans. Meanwhile, a draft law providing for theSecurity Council to be transformed into a super-ministry and avast expansion of Lebed’s personal "sphere of power"is on the State Duma’s list of measures to be considered. It appears,that the General has begun to live "his own independent life"in politics, a possibility which had escaped the attention ofthose who made Lebed’s rapid rise possible. The ephemeral image,which during the last several years lived only in the public’simagination, has materialized into a concrete figure who is capableof squeezing certain "players" on the Russian politicalscene. What will he be tomorrow: vice president or perhaps, ashe has promised, president "before the year 2000?" Itcannot be ruled out that the enlightened general-politician willplay a positive and remarkable role in Russian history. It mightotherwise happen that the struggle for "a place closer tothe throne," which has intensified after the election, willresult in the General (who so far has little experience in bureaucraticbattles) being squeezed out to smaller roles. Anyway, for themoment the realization of each of these scenarios appears a lessterrible prospect than the one we have just escaped, I mean areturn to a Communist dictatorship.

What is really bad is that the Russian people for yet anothertime in their history have demonstrated a propensity to rely onpersons. Our people have not been taught to live with democraticinstitutions, like a parliament, while only such institutionscan serve as a sound and long-term insurance against the reversalof democratic changes.

Translated by Aleksandr Kondorsky