Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 6

General Lebed Gains Political Support but may be Defeated by His Own Personality


by Vladimir Socor

The history of disintegrating empires, from the Roman and theByzantine to the French and the Portuguese, features instanceswhen disaffected generals from imperial peripheries seized orattempted to seize, power in the metropolitan center. Russia´sLt.-Gen. Aleksandr Lebed, whose 14th Army clings to the ex-Sovietimperial border in Moldova, may provide the first Russian caseof this pattern. Lebed is widely thought to be gearing up forseeking high office in Moscow, including Russia´s presidency.Should he do so, Lebed would probably also provide a modern variationon the historic archetype: he would not march on the center fromhis periphery to grab power, but would seek it through electionsand by exploiting the modern mass media.

That prospect, greeted with hope in some Russian political andmilitary circles, now preoccupies President Boris Yeltsin, defenseminister Pavel Grachev, and other power holders. Yeltsin and Grachevare among the favorite targets of Lebed´s relentless vituperations.From his headquarters in Tiraspol in Moldova´s Transdniestrregion, Lebed is successfully playing the classical card of theincorruptible and outraged patriot challenging a rotten establishmentfrom the outside while striving to save the empire. As these Russianpolitical elephants contend, Moldova risks being trampled undertheir feet.

Last week Lebed tendered his resignation from the military inresponse to defense ministry plans to downsize the 14th Army´scommand, downgrade the army´s status to that of an operationalgroup, and offer Lebed some obscure and irrelevant posting inthe depths of Siberia (such as deputy chief of staff of Transbaikalmilitary district). The plan appears designed to either consignLebed to public and media oblivion with a loser’s image, or forcehim out of the military while avoiding the appearance of persecutionand thus denying him a martyr’s aura. Resignation with a banghowever, should protect and even enhance Lebed´s image, andfree him to pursue his political ambitions as parliamentary andpresidential elections draw nearer. Although Grachev hastenedto accept Lebed’s resignation and even gloated over it, Yeltsin,who as commander-in-chief of the armed forces has the power toappoint and dismiss army commanders, has yet to rule on Lebed´sresignation. Has Lebed chosen his time well or poorly? Even Lebedhimself does not seem sure.

Lebed’s Goals and Appeals

Originally announced in September 1994, Grachev´s plansto reform the 14th Army were at least in part a response to hintsby Lebed that he might run for Russia´s presidency in futureelections. At that time, this challenge was only a distant prospect.But despite some threatening words, Lebed nonetheless avoideda premature resignation. He successfully lined up strong politicalsupport from the Duma, political parties, and the mass media.Yeltsin backed down, in effect disavowing his own defense ministerby keeping Lebed in his post. Yeltsin apparently felt that Lebed´spolitical backing had been underestimated and that the presidentshould avoid being seen as conniving to do in a potential competitorin advance of elections.

The ministry’s plan to downsize the 14th army and Lebed himself,however, was reactivated last month in apparent reaction to Lebed´sescalating attacks on the Kremlin and the defense ministry, particularlyover the prosecution of the war in Chechnya. Now, with the electionsmuch closer, a well-timed resignation with appropriate and guaranteedpublicity could significantly boost Lebed´s political potential,provided that the elections are not unduly delayed.

Intensive media exposure has been the key to Lebed´s rise.One can readily see why Lebed is considered a charismatic figurefor Russian circumstances. A 46-year-old muscular paratrooperwith barracks manners, a former boxer’s nose, and thunderous voicewhich he enjoys exercising, Lebed exudes force and authority,cultivates a folksy-brutal language, and (except lately on Chechnya)projects himself as an empire saver. Lebed plays stern fatherto his 14th Army´s grateful soldiers and appears eager tobroaden his role to that of stern father to the nation. Such aposture undoubtedly meets the cravings of many Russians for authority,empire, and military strength. It also appeals to widespread nostalgiafor the semblance of order and the relative economic securityof the Soviet period.

Many Russian voters would probably like their state to be likeLebed and would expect him to project his own personality ontothe state. The size of Lebed´s potential constituency hasyet to be measured. He figures regularly in the political rankingsof Russian personalities published in the Moscow press, but thoserankings are neither reliable nor methodologically sound. Farmore professionally conducted were the 1994 surveys of militaryopinion, which showed Lebed to be the most respected general inthe Russian armed forces and a distinct political favorite ofthe officer corps. It was in the wake of one such survey thatLebed first signaled openly his availability for high office.

Potential Constituencies and Possible Allies

Lebed has carefully avoided identification with any specificsocial or political segment of Russian society. As is usual withnationalist savior-type figures, the general apparently aspiresto transcend social divisions and to address the people in theircapacity as Russians. This partly explains why he has yet to adopta political program or address specific political or economicissues. Such ambiguity may be seen as designed to maximize socialsupport for a possible Lebed candidacy, enabling the general tobe all things to all people. While this factor may well enterthe general’s calculations, he may also be turning necessity intovirtue.

A more prosaic explanation for Lebed´s failure to commenton specific issues could well be his obvious lack of educationin the realm of politics and economics, and the absence of anythingresembling competent political advisers at his headquarters inTiraspol. Lebed´s attempts to sketch a political vision havethus far been confined to calling for a Russian version of Chile’sGeneral Augusto Pinochet and offering himself for the position.But in conjuring up a Russian Pinochet, Lebed merely dwells onthe themes of social order, disciplined work, and enhancing themilitary’s position in the state. He does not appear to appreciatethe Chilean model’s real achievement–replacing economic statismwith the free market and an autarkic ideology with full opennessto international trade.

Lebed by contrast has repeatedly indicated that he longs forthe Soviet industrial might and welfare state. While he may feelthat political necessity require him to emit such signals, theydo not seem to conflict with the general’s own convictions andvalues. He has also expressed concern over Western economic penetrationallegedly intended to turn Russia into a source of cheap raw materialsand labor and an ecological dump for the West.

Lebed’s most important constituency thus far has been in Moscow’sliberal mass media. As some of Lebed´s early media backershave observed, Lebed the political figure is largely a creationof media liberals. It is they who have given Lebed a media exposuresecond to none in Russia–except Yeltsin himself. This is an ironicparadox given Lebed´s authoritarian and militarist outlookand apparent lack of interest in reforms. It is doubly paradoxicalsince the liberal media practically snatched Lebed from the "red-brown"press which had until 1993 lionized the general but could notoffer him the exposure he was seeking.

Yet the strange alliance may have more prosaic roots. One isthat in a media environment shaped by market considerations andwhich accommodates irreverence to the authorities, Lebed withhis explosive interviews is the hottest political commodity around.Another is the growing disenchantment with Yeltsin among liberalsthemselves and their hostility to Grachev, which makes Lebed intoan ally of convenience. But it has also been reported that thetwo main liberal parties represented in the Duma have been exploringa marriage of convenience with Lebed–as with Col.-Gen. BorisGromov–in order to cut into the Russian electorate’s nationalistsegment at the next elections.

The object of intensive wooing by other parties as well, Lebedis still keeping his options open. He appears to be on good termswith nationalist politicians such as Stanislav Govorukhin, oneof the leaders of the Democratic Party of Russia, Konstantin Zatulin,chairman of the Duma´s Committee on CIS Affairs and Tieswith Co-nationals (in the "near abroad"), and otherwould-be empire-rebuilders. In his most overtly political gestureto date, Lebed accepted election, alongside military-industrialinterests´ representative Yuri Skokov, to the leadershipof the Congress of Russian Communities (again of the "nearabroad") which intends to contest the coming elections asa political movement. But Lebed insists that his acceptance ofthat position does not prejudice his political independence orforeclose any political options.

Lebed has adopted an uncharacteristically dovish stance on thewar in Chechnya. He has attacked Grachev´s and the defenseministry hierarchy’s performance, deplored the unnecessary lossesincurred by Russian troops, called for negotiations with Chechenpresident Dzhokhar Dudayev, and occasionally regretted the deathsof Chechen civilians. Lebed is the most persistent critic of thatwar among Russia´s military figures. While stemming partlyfrom professional concerns and partly from his hostility to Grachevand Yeltsin, Lebed´s demonstrative gestures to distance himselffrom that highly unpopular war were likely born of political calculationas well.


Lebed´s adversaries appear at this stage to be substantiallymore numerous than his actual or potential allies. In recent years,the general has demonstrated a propensity for changing alliesin mid-course, turning allies into enemies, and making new enemiesall around. Once a Central Committee member of the retrogradeCommunist Party of the Russian Federation, Lebed first capturedpublic attention with an anti-reform philippic at that party’s1991 congress, only to break with it shortly thereafter. Duringthe August 1991 putsch, he, together with Grachev, switched fromthe plotters’ side to Yeltsin’s in mid-coup. But unlike Grachevwho made a durable alliance with Yeltsin, Lebed went on to ostentatiouslyreject the award of Defender of the White House and successfullymended his fences with the "red-brown" camp.

Their hero again in 1992 and 1993 for bashing Moldova and forattacking Yeltsin and reforms, Lebed promptly accepted liberalembraces although not the reformist agenda. As an ally of formerVice-President Aleksandr Rutskoy and the hard-liners in Russia´sSupreme Soviet, Lebed was their first choice for the post of defenseminister in their would-be government in October 1993. He rejectedthe offer in brutal language, but paradoxically went on to endorsethe rebels’ main demand–simultaneous parliamentary and presidentialelections–even as Yeltsin’s victory looked certain, and endedup antagonizing both camps.

A protector of the Transdniester Russians in the 1992 war againstMoldova, and lionized for that reason in Tiraspol, Lebed quarreledwith that most devoted constituency of his in 1993 and has beenfighting a losing political battle against it ever since–butwithout yielding one iota in his hostility to Moldova. Being ofpartly Cossack descent and solemnly awarded the title of HonoraryCossack at a general congress, Lebed has since publicly attackedvarious Cossack leaders and hosts for real or alleged sins ata time when Russian politicians woo the Cossack vote. Perhapshis most risky move has been to quarrel with his long-time protectorGrachev. The association between the two dates back to militaryacademy and its aftermath when Lt. Lebed commanded a platoon inCaptain Grachev´s company. It continued through the years,including service Afghanistan and the August 1991 putsch. Fortwo years, Lebed was able to survive his own inflammatory politicalstatements with impunity, owing primarily to Grachev´s protection.In 1994 he turned with his usual vehemence against Grachev andaccused the defense minister of failing to introduce militaryreforms. Yet Lebed himself has yet to advance any proposal inthat regard. His own view of military reform seems only to consistof demanding higher pay and social benefits for servicemen.

In sum, Lebed has influential allies of convenience but he alsohas his adversaries, who range from Yeltsin and the defense ministryto the "red-browns."

Lebed´s alliances and enmities are subject to shifts andto intensely personal and idiosyncratic factors. His impulsivecharacter and intemperate language are serious liabilities, asis the modest level of his education and his inability to discusscomplex issues cogently. His raw appeal to the large sectionsof the Russian public may make him a serious contender for power,but his most formidable enemy may in the end be his own personality.

Vladimir Socor is a Senior Analyst at the Jamestown Foundation.