The more Boris N. Yeltsin insists he is in rude good health, the more the world wonders who will succeed him. So it has been since Yeltsin returned to duty in mid-January after a six-week rest. No one knows whether the 66-year-old President can complete his term, which runs to 2000. Not surprisingly, the jockeying among would-be successors is mounting. The front-runners include Boris Y. Nemtsov, one of Yeltsin's radical reformers, and Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, the conservative Prime Minister. Then there is the gruff soldier-turned-politician who, only a year ago, seemed destined for a starring role in Russian politics: retired General Alexander I. Lebed.
Lebed has captured few headlines outside Russia since Yeltsin fired him from his job as National Security adviser in 1996. But other candidates will have to face the charismatic 47-year-old. Lebed is determinedly active--and could become a powerful parliamentary voice. He is one of two politicians who has so far declared his candidacy; the other is economist Grigory A. Yavlinsky, who leads the reformist Yabloko Party. Lebed has his own party, the Russian People's Republicans, and has fielded candidates in regional elections. Rarely does he miss a chance to criticize Yeltsin for creating an oligarchy based on crime. "I am fed up with the madhouse my country has become," Lebed recently told BUSINESS WEEK. "I intend to bring civilized order to this country."
Asked how he would impose such order, Lebed says: "The way it is done throughout the world." And that underscores one of his problems. His programs are vague and sometimes contradictory. During the 1996 election, when he came in third after Yeltsin and Communist Party leader Gennady A. Zyuganov, Lebed issued two economic manifestos by different advisers. One advocated free markets, the other, a strong state role in the economy. Says a former employee: "He tries to increase his popularity by changing his viewpoints freely."
Now, Lebed is calling for lower taxes and a partial amnesty for Russians who empty their Swiss bank accounts and invest in Russia. Tax cuts are widely considered a key step, since the dozens of regional and federal taxes imposed on Russians often exceed 100% of income. Says Lebed: "The total tax anyone pays must be cut to 40%." Lebed also advocates rapid land privatization and safeguards for foreign investment.
Lebed's goal is to capture the protest vote. On military bases, where soldiers are barred from political parties, he works through an organization called Honor and the Fatherland. Like his political party, the movement is small, but in some recent regional elections, candidates from both organizations did well. If that continues, Lebed could well lead a big faction in the State Duma following elections in 1999. That could be just the platform he needs. "Nothing has changed in this country. We have the same party nomenclatura," he says. "They have made a transition from a communism built to suit their personal needs to a democracy built to suit their personal needs. Nothing is going to change until we gently move this crowd to the roadside of the political process."
Lebed's personality is a big asset. He dominates gatherings with his penetrating gaze, booming voice, and ivory cigarette holder. But Lebed doesn't appeal to everybody. He's snubbed by intellectuals as an opportunist, by most of the press, and even by top ranks of the military. Moscow analysts say he relies too heavily on retired military officers as advisers. Despite his anticrime platform, more than one of his candidates has lost because of a prison record.
SUPPORT. It is amid stagnation that Lebed's star will rise. He shares the protest vote with Zyuganov and nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky. But the communists are not considered a major threat in 2000. And Lebed is winning supporters from Zhirinovsky's camp. His chances rise further if the pro-reform vote splits among Nemtsov, Chernomyrdin, Yavlinsky, or Moscow Mayor Yuri M. Luzhkov.
Still, Lebed is a long shot. Most business figures lean toward Chernomyrdin or Luzhkov. Says Leonid Radzikhovsky, a commentator at the newspaper Sevognya: "If it turns out that Yeltsin is incapable of leading, and the governing elite fails to unite behind a worthy candidate, then Lebed will have a real chance." That is, if the election is fair. In today's Russia, the political and financial elite have the power to manipulate any election--even a presidential race.