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Ethnic conflict in the former Soviet republic of Moldova has proven fertile ground for an increasingly important figure on Russia's political landscape: Lt. Gen. Alexander Lebed.

At 44, Lebed is one of the military's best-known commanders, comparable only to Defense Minister Pavel Grachev and his deputy Boris Gromov. He is also one of the most blunt critics of President Boris Yeltsin's government.A controversy now surrounding Lebed could finish him off. Or it could make the rough, round-faced paratrooper - whose surname misleadingly translates as "swan" - a political star.

"The current anti-Lebed campaign may help launch a great political future for the general," the daily newspaper Segodnya predicted.

The prospect is welcome for many - and terrifying for those who fear a military strongman coming to power in post-Soviet Russia.

Lebed recently said Russia needed a strong leader and praised former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet for restoring the army's "pride."

He has also spoken in favor of restoring the former Soviet Union, or at least the Slavic part, saying the army is essential for Russia's survival.

The anti-Lebed campaign described by Segodnya surrounds Defense Minister Grachev's plans to reorganize Lebed's 14th army, a contingent of several thousand Russian troops on mainly peacekeeping duties in the restive Trans-Dniester, a separatist and predominantly Slav region of eastern Moldova.

Despite Defense Ministry denials, Lebed and his officers believe the reorganization is simply a cover for ousting him. They accuse Trans-Dniester authorities, a frequent target of Lebed's biting criticism, of pulling strings with the high command.

Even if Lebed stays, his army will most likely be disbanded, although the pullout will take three years under the terms of Wednesday's Russian-Moldovan agreement.

The agreement, after two years of tense talks over Russian troops remaining in Moldova after the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991, gives the self-proclaimed Trans-Dniester republic special status. But it also retains Moscow's influence in the region.

With Lebed's military future in question, one thing is certain: If the outspoken general chooses a political career, he will have many points in his favor.

Lebed is said to be much more popular in the embittered and cash-strapped military than Grachev. And it is no secret that he wants Grachev's job.

Segodnya said a recent poll found 76 percent of cadets in Moscow's military academies want Lebed as defense minister, while none backed Grachev.

Lebed's rise in the army was as swift as his camouflaged troops were on the battlefield. A battalion commander in 1981 during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, he was commander of the elite Tula paratroop division by 1989.

The secret of Lebed's popularity is his ability to please diverse political forces and his blunt manner. He is a darling of the nationalists and hard-liners, but Yeltsin also owes him.

Lebed brought a battalion of paratroopers to guard Moscow's White House, Yeltsin's headquarters during the failed Soviet coup of August 1991.

He was rewarded the next year with the command of the 14th army, which controls huge ammunition and weapons depots.

Lebed was soon on a collision course with his superiors, with the Moldovan government and with the Trans-Dniester separatists.

The Defense Ministry barred Lebed from talking to journalists after he said he could not recognize Moldovan President Mircea Snegur, describing a "shadow of fascism" falling over Moldova and the threat of "genocide" faced by ethnic Slavs in Trans-Dniester.

Ignoring the orders, Lebed continued to speak his mind. His next target was hard-line communists ruling Trans-Dniester whom he has repeatedly called corrupt and unfit.

Lebed is not fully in the hard-line camp. During October's violence in Moscow, he backed Yeltsin against hard-liners in the Soviet-era parliament.