Publication: Prism Volume: 4 Issue: 13

By Aleksandr Buzgalin and Andrei Kolganov

One cannot say of General Aleksandr Lebed that “if he hadn’t existed, one would have had to invent him.” There are more than enough claimants to the place which Lebed occupies in Russian political life already. If there were no Lebed, it would have been someone else… And the main question, therefore, is not “Why Lebed?,” but — why are there so many “others”?


The demand for “law and order,” which, in the eyes of many Russian citizens, is embodied by Aleksandr Lebed, began to be heard back in Gorbachev’s time. Then, it was those who wanted to preserve the previous regime, who had seen that power was slipping out of the hands of the CPSU, who wanted “law and order.” The absurd imitation of a coup d’etat in August 1991 was an attempt by the conservative part of the nomenklatura to restore “law and order” as they saw it. And it was in August 1991 that Aleksandr Lebed first appeared in the political arena: he entered into negotiations with the defenders of the “White House.”

After August 1991, virtually everyone thirsted for “law and order.” Not only pensioners who had suffered from reform, but even the most zealous democrats (this term — often put in quotation marks — is used in Russia to refer to the supporters of democratic and market reforms, and often, to any supporters of President Yeltsin) began to dream of a “strong hand,” who would protect their achievements.


The most well-known theoretical justification for authoritarian rule as a necessary transitional stage on the way to democracy was offered by Andranik Migranian, who, at one time, was one of Yeltsin’s advisers. One may summarize his argument as follows: the population of Russia, which had grown up under Communist rule, will be unable to bear the deprivations which would come with liberal market reforms. Under a democratic form of government, the sympathies of the population would be on the side of the Communist and nationalist opposition. In order to prevent an opposition victory, which would mean the end of reform, authoritarian methods of rule must be adopted.

Thus, the fact that this government cannot conduct these reforms by democratic means has become the justification for the conclusion that democratic and liberal reforms must not be carried out by democratic means. A conclusion which does not bode well for democracy!

But this conclusion did not lead to a search for a “strong hand”? Why not? Because the Russian democrats already had a strong hand — former Politburo Candidate Member Boris Yeltsin, Russia’s first democratically-elected president. And Yeltsin soon demonstrated his strong hand: in October 1993, he did not shrink from suspending the Constitution and the laws — and after that, from mass murders of unarmed people — to make Russia’s form of government more authoritarian.

The real reason for these events and the ideological justification for them are quite obvious — indeed, these reforms cannot be implemented by this government by democratic means. Moreover, if the very idea of reforms presupposes a significant reduction in the standard living of Russia’s population and the squandering of the most advanced part of her economic potential, the implementation of these reforms by a corrupt nomenklatura and semi-criminal business makes them even more “effective” and even less bearable.


As reforms go forward, and the economic crisis continues to become more profound, it becomes obvious that not even the unprecedented (by democratic standards) concentration of power in President Yeltsin’s hands, founded on the new Constitution foisted upon Russia in December 1993, will save the situation. Formally, of course, from the point of view of accepted political procedures, Boris Yeltsin and the reforms carried out under his aegis will be able to hold on to their positions. The 1996 presidential elections brought Yeltsin victory, and guaranteed that he would remain power until the year 2000.

But this political success in no way changes the country’s dire economic straits, and therefore, cannot smooth over the sharp clash of real interests. And if these conflicts find no solution through formal democratic procedures, they will begin to look for a way around these procedures. The authoritarian features of Russia’s form of government have permitted Yeltsin to “direct” the political “play,” but have not delivered him from real political threats.

The economic and political oligarchy which has grown up over the years of reform has begun to show its uneasiness. Already, during the elections, voices began to ring out, calling on Yeltsin to come to terms with the Communist opposition. But Yeltsin is not a master of political compromises; his strong suit is something else entirely.

The situation could be changed by a turn for the better in the country’s economic development. But all that the Yeltsin administration has been able to do is to slow down the growth of destructive crisis processes (and even there, it has not succeeded in all areas of the economy). Moreover, there is every reason to think that this partial economic stabilization was achieved, not through a deliberate economic policy, but because enterprises have succeeded on their own in adapting to existing policy.

Can Yeltsin change the situation? No, he can’t. His government isn’t strong enough.


Yeltsin and his bureaucratic apparatus ran his presidential campaign very effectively. They were able to defeat the opposition’s main candidate, Gennady Zyuganov, and turn the success of Aleksandr Lebed, who had gotten third place, in their favor. They won the bidding war for Lebed, and he supported Yeltsin in the second round. This fact remains a fact, regardless of the how true the rumors may be that Lebed ran his whole campaign on money given to him by Yeltsin’s campaign staff. Lebed traded his electoral support for the post for the post of Security Council Secretary in the Yeltsin administration.

After successfully playing the “Lebed card” and using it to conclude an unpopular peace with the Chechen separatists, Yeltsin simply discarded Lebed when he didn’t need him anymore. It seemed that the ambitious general’s career was over.

To this day, Yeltsin has been very successful at outplaying the opposition, which has support in the State Duma. The opposition’s ineffectual raids on the president never end in better than a draw, and in the worst case, the opposition has to back off from its radical slogans.

But Yeltsin has no power over the spontaneous wave of protests which is swelling up from below. 1994 was the quietest year for Boris Yeltsin — there were fewer strikes that year than in any other year of his presidency (beginning in 1990, when he took the post of Chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Federation). But each year after that, the number of strikes has grown; they have become more sustained, and are increasingly often accompanied by acts of civil disobedience — blocking railroads and highways, local administration buildings, etc.

Yeltsin can do nothing about this. Can he use force? Even in October 1993, against a Supreme Soviet which wasn’t very popular, with the help of deceit and bribery, he just barely succeeded in scraping up enough fighters from elite military units who would agree to fire on his political opponents. He will not be able to turn the army, which is half destroyed and embittered by its failures in Chechnya, against the strikers.

Can he change his economic policy? Yeltsin can bring any representative of the economic oligarchy, and even all of them together, to heel, because their economic prosperity is based on their being in the good graces of the president and the executive branch. But Yeltsin cannot encroach upon the interests of the new Russian business class and the corrupt bureaucracy — the social force which has given him his main financial, organizational and political support in the elections. Yeltsin is not only unable to change the course of reform, he is not even able to conduct these reforms more consistently and effectively. He is forced to take into account the interests of the bankers, trading companies, and the monopolist giants of the fuel and energy and raw-materials complexes — on one hand, and the interests of the central and regional bureaucracy — on the other.


Russia’s ruling elite has been searching for a long time for a new “strong hand.” Even the incumbent president’s most fanatical supporters are concerned about this problem — after all, Boris Yeltsin is not immortal. But why are they placing their bets on a “strong hand,” and how would this new “strong hand” be an improvement over Yeltsin?

First of all, the Russian population is disillusioned, not only with market reforms, but also with democracy itself. What has been done in Russia under democratic slogans has seriously discredited these slogans, even in the eyes of the most educated and cultured part of the population. Democracy, as given to them by the Yeltsin administration, has guaranteed Russia neither popular government, nor prosperity, nor the rule of law. An increasing number of voters are ready to give their support to someone who, with a firm voice and the air of decisiveness, promises “law and order.” Aleksandr Lebed’s success in the gubernatorial elections in Krasnodar Krai is an unambiguous confirmation of this. And it is no accident.

Much earlier, quite a few voters supported the authoritarian and nationalist rhetoric of LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Retired generals Lev Rokhlin and Andrei Nikolaev have also managed to win popularity. The voters also, to a greater or lesser degree, identify these candidates with their longing for “law and order.”

Why do the voters (and the political and economic elite) see a figure like Aleksandr Lebed as more capable of guaranteeing law and order than the incumbent president? Because in order to rule in Bonapartist fashion, the aspiring Bonaparte cannot be too closely tied to certain social, political and economic groups, and moreover, he must be a charismatic leader.

Aleksandr Lebed is well-suited for this role. The general, who is not tied to the support of the CPSU government or the contemporary Communist opposition, is widely known for his role in stopping the Moldovan government’s aggression against the Transdniester Republic, has not been implicated in any scandals, and is quite suitable for the role of charismatic leader. Undeniably, he is decisive, and therefore, the average voter hopes that Lebed will press the thieving bureaucracy and those who have gotten rich dishonestly, and hope that he will harshly carry out a policy of restraining the present elite in the name of preserving the elite itself. Moreover, Lebed speaks loudly about defending Russia’s national interests, which makes an impression on a significant portion of the voters and many businessmen.

Yeltsin’s old image as a politician in disgrace, who spoke out against the privileges of the party elite in the interests of the people, has faded out of view. And his dependence on the interests of the “New Russians” and his pro-Western orientation (in spite of the nationalist rhetoric which appears from time to time) are too obvious.

All this has led to a situation in which, today, Lebed is already openly being examined as the figure called upon to replace Yeltsin on the chessboard of Russian politics, if Yeltsin cannot count on a third presidential term. But among Russian political scientists, doubts are widespread as to whether effective authoritarian government is possible in Russia at all. And what will happen, if these hopes for a “strong hand” are dashed?

Translated by Mark Eckert

Aleksandr Buzgalin is a Doctor of Economics and a professor at Moscow State University. In the perestroika period, he was a leading member of the reform wing of the CPSU. He is now one of the leaders of the Democratic Socialist Movement in Russia.

Andrei Kolganov is a Doctor of Economics and a Senior Research Fellow at Moscow State University.