Facebook Twitter

Who is Lebed? Now Russia will find out

SHARE Who is Lebed? Now Russia will find out

In Russian, the word "lebed" means "swan," and Alexander Lebed must surely believe in the childhood story of the ugly duckling.

By his own accounting, he's not much to look at: square head, pockmarked cheeks, a body like a baby bull and a voice so supernaturally low it seems designed for the ears of some other species. When he talks, he has a nervous twitch that makes his lip curl up on the left, giving the impression - presumably not intended - of a sneer.Until now, no one could really say if Lebed, who badly wants to be president of Russia, was the ugly duckling or the swan.

Now they'll know. On May 17, Lebed was elected governor of the Krasnoyarsk region of Siberia, and soon he'll have a track record as a leader of something other than a battalion. One way or another, his feathers will show.

Depending on how he does, Lebed could be in a strong position to become president of Russia in 2000 or 2004. The Cold War may be over, but the president still exercises vast power in his region and still carries the code to the nuclear button.

And so the question arises: Who is this man?

The first thing that strikes a reader of his autobiography, "My Life and My Country," is that this is a man of overwhelming ambition. Time and again throughout his career, Alexander Ivanovich Lebed has been underestimated. Time and again, he has suffered setbacks. And time and again, he has been patient and he has won.

"His strengths include charisma and his ability as a strategist, and also his courage in dealing with all branches of power," says Alexei Chaplygen, an analyst with a Moscow think tank, the Center for Studies in Civil Society.

"As for his weaknesses, I can name excessive straightforwardness. For a politician, this is not a very good quality. And also . . . he doesn't know his limits. He's unpredictable and unmanageable."

Lebed didn't know his limits when he ran for president against Boris Yeltsin in 1996. He did surprisingly well and was brought into Yeltsin's administration as national security chief. His tenure was short and stormy but included his greatest accomplishment, negotiatinng the peace in the breakaway republic of Chechnya.

Lebed didn't know his limits when he ran for governor of Krasnoyarsk, a region four times the size of Texas, with a Texan pride in its independence and distrust of city slickers.

Lebed had never lived in Krasnoyarsk, and early polls suggested he stood little chance against the incumbent governor, Valery Zubov, a relative bright light among Russia's provincial leaders.

Lebed campaigned tirelessly, short-hopping the region by plane, tromping through the snow and permafrost in more than 100 towns and villages, from close to Mongolia to the Arctic Circle.

In the end, he confounded the naysayers. Lebed forced Zubov, once a successful amateur runner, into a runoff. Then he floored him like the boxer he once was. People throughout Russia took notice.

Now, once again, Lebed has his work cut out for him. Although Krasnoyarsk is in better shape than many in Russia, and has some of the world's richest deposits of timber and minerals, it also has enormous problems.

Whole industries are at a standstill; workers go without pay and, often, without work. To the extent that factories work, they are responsible for some of the worst industrial pollution on Earth. Organized crime flourishes in the cities.

The question everyone has been asking since Lebed's victory is whether he can turn things around in Krasnoyarsk in time to run for president in 2000.

"From my point of view, he possesses good prospects to become a good governor," said Vyacheslav Novikov, host of a public affairs program on Krasnoyarsk television.

But in two years? "Definitely not."

Then again, many people believe that, once again, Lebed is being underestimated.

So far, the names most frequently bandied about for president in 2000 are Viktor Chernomyrdin, the former prime minister; Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist Party boss; Grigory Yavlinsky, a leader of the country's liberal forces; and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov.

All share one trait: They are Moscow insiders. In a country that increasingly resents the capital and its perceived prosperity, this is not an asset. And Lebed, despite his brief and stormy stint in the Kremlin as national security chief, could be in a prime position to capitalize on that.

"He's a very strong personality in all respects," Chaplygen said. "We've observed that, in recent months, his team became very strong. He wouldn't lack either ideas or the people to carry them out."

The big question that remains is: What are his ideas? The thing about Alexander Lebed is, no one really knows.

His platform in the election in Krasnoyarsk was so vague as to be meaningless: He wants the region to keep a larger share of its taxes. He intends to crack down on corruption. He'll get industry working again.

Most people assume Lebed is a nationalist and populist with vaguely centrist economic ideas and vaguely authoritarian views on law and order. He is generally perceived as honest, and apparently sincere in his distaste for Soviet totalitarianism. (Lebed says his father spent two years in a Stalinist labor camp for being late to work.)

What kind of president he'd be? Ask the people of Krasnoyarsk - two years from now.