What's Bringing Moscow Together: Fear Of Lebed

In Russia's turbulent politics, few ideas garner support across the country's jungle of factions. But increasingly, a broad array of politicians from ardent reformers to diehard Communists are uniting around one issue: They want to block the road to the Russian presidency of ambitious Alexander Lebed. The blunt, 46-year-old general-turned-peacemaker is already actively campaigning against ailing President Boris N. Yeltsin.

But the uneasy alliance against Lebed could have a curious result. It could help keep Russia on a more or less even keel just as it seems in danger of spinning out of control. Both Yeltsin's opponents in Parliament and his own government need time to prepare for the post-Yeltsin era. The surprise is that the communists aren't rushing to exploit Yeltsin's weakness. "A large part of the political elite is very concerned with the state of Yeltsin's health and want to rule out the possibility of early elections and a Lebed victory," says Andrei Piontkowsky, analyst at Moscow's Institute of Strategic Studies.

REVENGE. Lebed's chances of success are greater the sooner a presidential election is held, most analysts say. Now rated the country's most popular politician, with 26% support, nearly double Yeltsin's, Lebed never misses a chance to grab the media limelight and criticize the President. His promises to crack down on crime and corruption and smash the "cruel oligarchy" of financial cartels play to the crowds. Lebed has moved to temper his reputation as a loose cannon on recent trips to the U.S. and Germany. But at home he is still seen by rivals as an outsider who shoots from the hip.

What scares Russia's business and political elite is that Lebed could use vast presidential powers to wreak revenge on enemies in the Kremlin, dismiss the legislature, and redistribute wealth. They worry "[that he] could use his popular mandate to create a dictatorship," says Scott Bruckner, director of the Moscow Center of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Lebed faces steep obstacles in his bid for power. For starters, Yeltsin is unlikely to resign voluntarily. He can't be forced out unless he is clearly incapacitated, for example, by falling into a coma. The communists' control of the Duma gives them a big stake in preserving the status quo. Says Igor E. Mintusov, director of Moscow political consultants Niccolo M: "[No one] is interested in new elections, and that includes the opposition."

Instead, the leadership vacuum created by Yeltsin's illness has spurred moves by Parliament to amend Russia's constitution. The constitution that Yeltsin pushed through in 1993 after a violent conflict with Parliament concentrates immense power in the presidency. Both houses of Parliament now want to snatch back some of the President's powers--partly out of fear that a future President such as Lebed could wield authoritarian powers.

Yeltsin has long fought the idea. But if his health worsens, his own team might support it because they, too, fear a Lebed victory. Yeltsin's entourage might back proposals that would allow the next President to be elected by the Federation Council or the Duma rather than by a nationwide ballot. That would likely guarantee a figure from the mainstream of Russian politics. Although amending the constitution requires huge parliamentary majorities, the alliance of forces against Lebed could pull it off.

If Yeltsin is too ill to travel to Washington for a March summit with President Bill Clinton, Lebed is bound to heighten his attack. That would fuel anxiety in Moscow--and could provide more cement for the unlikely alliance unwittingly keeping Russia stable.

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