June 23, 1996 (Opinion Page)


by Gregory Freidin

We must wish well Alexander Ivanovich Lebed--or "Swan" as his name means in Russian--in his effort to rout out crime and corruption in Russia and give his countrymen a sense of security--a kind of security that, historically, they have never had. As the newly appointed head of President Boris N. Yeltsin's National Security Council (the government entity with increasing authority over internal security, police, military and foreign intelligence); as the proverbial young and dynamic heir apparent; as the instant triple winner in Russia's "power ministries" roulette, Lebed now has concentrated in his hands all the tools that the Russian state has in its closet for cleaning house. And a clean house is what Russian voters seem to want most of all.

"Now, charge!" rumbled Yeltsin after introducing Lebed to the members of the National Security Council.

"Ready to serve my Fatherland." Lebed barked back the traditional military response. And heads rolled--the heads of four of Russia's most powerful men: the defense minister, Army Gen. Pavel S. Grachev; the secret service head, Alexander V. Korzhakov; head of the intelligence services, Gen. Mikhail I. Barsukov; and the first deputy prime minister with responsibility for the military-industrial complex, Oleg N. Soskovets.

Lebed's energy and forthrightness, plus his terse and folksy idiom ("He wants the president to jump into the toilet and pull the chain" was his comment on pro-reformist Grigory Yavlinsky's conditions for joining forces with Yeltsin) have earned him popular admiration and will stand him in good stead.

Yet, Lebed's sudden elevation and prominence should also give us pause. The expectations he has generated among the jaded Russian electorate are far greater than any one leader can possibly meet. For Lebed is engaging in battle not just with the recent wave of crime and corruption--a "tsunami of crap," as he put it in his autobiography--but with the whole history of crooked government in his country.

Almost three centuries ago, according to legend, Peter the Great once became so indignant at the depravity of his Senate that he threatened to hang every senator found guilty of bribe-taking or embezzle- ment (that he did hang one, the governor of Siberia, is a matter of record). "Your majesty," said one senator, "if this indeed be the law of the empire, your majesty alone would remain in the government." Such are the tales of the origins of Russia's civil service.

In the subsequent 300 years, Russia's bureaucracy has undergone much expansion and change but not much improvement--certainly not as far as its public image is concerned. The incompetence and the failures of the Soviet state were conveniently attributed to the same scapegoat that had to be forever "struggled against" and "purged" by the party. In the meantime, the corrupt civil service prospered handsomely, aided by government central planning, secrecy, endemic shortages and pandemic black markets--all a breeding ground for organized crime.

The collapse of communism created a new set of problems: The old laws became irrelevant in many ways, and as Russia plunged into a free market, aspects of the economic and social life that emerged remain unregulated. The legislature, mired in factional politics, has been unable to keep up with the demand for new laws, and the executive branch has been too weak and corrupt to enforce the existing ones vigorously. To make matters worse, the unbridled sensationalism of the newly liberated media and the relative innocence of people unaccustomed to open crime statistics have created in the public mind a picture of a most unmitigated bleakness--whether it involved high-level corruption or ordinary street crime.

Such is the situation that Lebed now faces--a task beyond a single politician, especially one as new and untried. Failures are inevitable. And Lebed, who is regarded as thoughtful and intelligent, must be aware of the risks to his political future. The decision to try this stems either from foolhardiness--not likely--or apparently from the general's powerful sense of mission. Where this personal courage comes from and what that mission might be are, perhaps, the most interesting questions of this campaign season.

Russia's reform politics have been dominated by teams in which former top-level communist leaders, the older generation, are harnessed to men and women of ideas - members of Russia's intellectual or technocratic elite belonging, as a rule, to a younger generation and ordinarily unskilled in hand-to-hand combat style of Russian politics.

Yeltsin and Yegor T. Gaidar are a case in point. Since early 1993, the picture has been modified -- Yeltsin and prime minister Chernomyrdin, on the one hand, and other members of the original Gaidar team, on the other - but the main pattern remained the same: the old party war horses provide the political cover while the technocratic intellectuals forster reform. By inviting Alexander Lebed to join him at the very top, Yeltsin has opened a new leaf in Russia's post-communist politics.

First, he brought into the inner sanctum of his presidency a competing politician with a substantial following and an impressive showing at the polls. In this sense, Lebed is a man who can be appointed but not fired. Second, Yeltsin assigned this new politician to what is virtually the highest executive post--save for the presidency.

Finally, and perhaps most significant, by choosing Lebed, Yeltsin has recruited a new type of leader, one belonging to the new emphatically non-Communist generation. For Lebed, even the heroes of Russia's transition from communism, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, Eduard A. Shevardnadze, indeed, Yeltsin himself, have compromised their honor by their Communist Party past and by what he sees as their inability to put their country's interests above personal ambitions. Although a member of the Communist Party himself for awhile (like all commanding officers in his day), Lebed made his career as a combat officer in Afghanistan, developing his leadership skills not in the Communist Party snake pits but in the only other school of leadership open in the Soviet Union: the army. In the army, he served in its most modern branch, where patently non-Soviet personal and social skills such as individual initiative, honor, versatility and the ability to take responsibility were a matter of not just promotion, but survival.

Lebed's noncommunism is apparent in his socioeconomic election platform, most of which comes from Russia's neoliberal economists. These economic advisors are strong believers in the ability of the market forces to regulate themselves, with the government playing the role of, as Lebed put it, "not the wolf, but the wolfhound." For Lebed, who is not schooled in economic theory, the neoliberal approach is a matter of fundamental "common sense"--one of his presidential campaign slogans.

A man who spent most of his military career in combat--beginning with the war in Afghanistan in the late 1970s, serving as a peacekeeper during the anti-Armenian disturbances in Azerbaijan as well as other "hot spots" of the disintegrating Soviet Union--Lebed sees Russian history in this century as one "long bloody war" and he sees his own purpose as "securing peace, stability, calm and reason."

Unlike other Russian politicians who are all too anxious to establish their nationalist credentials by bridling at the potential eastward expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Lebed treats this prospect with refreshing equanimity. He says, since Russia is not planning to threaten anybody, the natural reluctance of Western taxpayers to shell out billions of dollars for embracing East Central Europe would keep the expansion in check. This is perhaps the most heartening response the West has received from a Russian politician of Lebed's authority.

In 1990, while he was still the commander of the airborne paratroops division in Tula, Lebed hosted Gen. Colin L. Powell. His soldiers were scheduled to demonstrate their skills before the honored guest but the wind was too high for a safe parachute drop. Lebed pleaded with his superior, unnamed in the memoirs, to skip the drop. The superior would not budge, and Lebed was ordered to go ahead with the demonstration. Lebed's recollection of this incident is most telling both of the sense of his nationalism and his political mission:

"Waves of our kamikaze drop out of the sky and hit the ground, roll over, help each other with the parachutes and charge their target. They charge brutally, ineluctably. I understand: If you hit the ground so hard, you go berserk; I know from experience. The four-star American general, in the meantime, is pacing back and forth on the observation platform, asking again and again: 'What are you doing? What are you doing?' And this for me, for some reason, is most painful. Damn American! Why doesn't he simply sit quietly, watch the way Russian gladiators break their legs. But he is a human being, he is a general, he knows the price of human life and human blood, he has conscience.

"This is why he is pacing back and forth, repeating: 'What are you doing! What are you doing!' And this makes me feel not only pain but shame. To this day, the question of the American general rings in my ears: 'What are you doing!"'

That sense of caring for people, that wounded pride and an inner conviction that he would be able to manage as he did in combat, hold the key to understanding Lebed's political mission. We can only hope that his earlier experience and his apparent recent commitment to democratic politics will make a tight fit.

Copyright (c) 1996 by Gregory Freidin

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