Last week’s spectacular eruption and intersection of two long-simmering Russian conflicts — one in Chechnya and the other in the Kremlin’s halls of power — have propelled security supremo Aleksandr Lebed back to the center of Russia’s political stage and set the retired general against much of the Kremlin establishment. Lebed’s latest odyssey began following his appointment on August 10 as Boris Yeltsin’s envoy to Chechnya and a hastily arranged trip to the war-torn Caucasus republic a day later. During a press conference in Moscow on August 12, Lebed denounced the "passivity" and "corruption" of those government officials previously responsible for handling the war in Chechnya, including his predecessor as Yeltsin’s envoy, Oleg Lobov. He also charged that a state commission for settling the crisis headed by Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin had "failed." Lebed, who had just met with Yeltsin, also introduced journalists to a draft presidential decree "on measures to regulate the Chechen crisis" that would provide the Security Council secretary with broad powers to pursue resolution the conflict.
That increased authority was formalized two days later, on August 14, when the Kremlin press service announced that Yeltsin had dissolved Chernomyrdin’s State Commission and granted to Lebed "new, vast additional powers for coordination of the activity of the federal bodies of executive power." But Lebed continued to harp publicly against political rivals who, he said, were out to sabotage his efforts. He declared during an interview with CNN that operating in the Kremlin was akin to swimming "in hydrochloric acid, with your legs chopped off." A report in Izvestiya on the same day suggested that the head of Yeltsin’s presidential administration, Anatoly Chubais, had joined the ranks of those objecting to the conferral on Lebed of such broad powers.
But Lebed’s sharpest remarks were yet to come. Following a second trip to Chechnya, the retired general on August 16 said that Russia could not afford the "luxury of conducting a war" and that the continued presence of Russia’s tattered forces in Chechnya amounted to a "moral, ethical, human, official, and every other kind of crime." Returning to the alleged culprits, he also denounced Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov, declaring him responsible for Moscow’s ongoing military failures in Chechnya and for the success of the Chechen rebels latest offensive in Grozny. In addition, Lebed accused the Interior Ministry of aiming to create a "grand Caucasian war" by dragging two other Caucasus republics — Ingushetia and Dagestan — into the Chechen conflict. Lebed demanded publicly that Kulikov be dismissed.
A day later Lebed was forced to backtrack, however, when Yeltsin reportedly declined to sack his interior minister. That setback raised anew the obvious question of whether Lebed’s newly won powers to deal with Russia’s most intractable crisis were intended by Kremlin leaders to boost or to bust the political fortunes of the ambitious former general. "Someone wants me very much to break my neck over this assignment," Lebed had said on August 12. "We shall see. I like tough assignments. They excite me." (Segodnya, August 13, 15; Izvestiya, August 14; The New York Times, August 13, 15, 18; The Washington Post, August 15, 18; AP, August 16; Reuter, August 17)
Kohl Urged to Pressure Yeltsin on Chechnya.