Yeltsin was right in ousting Lebed now

Before the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Premier Mikhail Gorbachev dismissed a troublesome member of the Politburo, Boris Yeltsin. Ironically, Yeltsin found himself in Gorbachev’s position last Thursday when he ended Alexander Lebed’s brief tenure as security advisor. Lebed has his eye on the presidency and is popular with the Russian people. But unlike Yeltsin, who was clearly committed to the ideals of democracy freedom and market reform, Lebed’s political profile is indistinct, and serious questions remain about his vision of the nation’s future and his commitment to democracy.
Yeltsin hired Lebed to co-opt the outspoken ex-general’s supporters after Lebed’s strong showing in the first round of this year’s presidential election. The move was instrumental in Yeltsin’s defeat of communist challenger Gennady Zyuganov. But, even during his four-month stint in the Yeltsin administration, Lebed was clearly positioning himself for the next election. His high-profile post kept him in the public eye, and even after being fired, polls show Lebed remains twice as popular as his rivals.
Lebed’s appeal is rooted in his willingness to challenge the authority of the Kremlin and the competency of the military. His role in negotiating the peace in Chechnya brought him a groundswell of public support in Russia and international attention. Lebed’s military experience lends credibility to his brash criticism. He has denounced corruption at the highest level of government and taken the military to task for allowing troops to be sent to Chechnya without proper food, weapons, clothing or pay. His tough talk has gained him a reputation among Russian citizens as their most trusted politician.
The greatest key to his popularity was his role in brokering a cease-fire with Chechen separatists. Two earlier peace initiatives failed within a matter of weeks, but Lebed has been remarkably successful, and the Chechens see Lebed as the only one in Moscow they can work with.
Unfortunately, his popularity is about the only thing that is clear about Lebed’s position in Russian politics.
In the elections, Lebed positioned himself as a law-and-order candidate, promising to clean up corruption and crime. However, what Lebed sees as the limits of the rule of law are suspiciously unclear. In a summer interview with the BBC, he praised infamous Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet saying that he had “managed very well to bring his country back to a normal life.” But left unsaid was the fact that Pinochet restored stability through gross human rights abuses that included taking political prisoners, torture and death squads. In addition, Lebed has mentioned a desire to reintroduce centralized governmental control, censorship and a “streamlined” judicial system, all indicative of his skepticism toward Russia’s fragile democracy.
Lebed has taken an easy route to political prominence by pointing out Russia’s problems. But while “telling it like it is” may win instant acclaim, he has proposed no solutions. Lebed’s ouster will no doubt boost his popularity, but brings his political agenda no closer to the surface. Russia is extraordinary unstable and in need of strong leadership, but the possibility of putting Lebed in a position of power is deeply disturbing. Yeltsin’s decision to squelch Lebed’s power was in the nation’s best interests.