Yeltsin Dismisses Security ChiefBy Lee Hockstader
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, October 18 1996; Page A01
A grim President Boris Yeltsin fired the most popular politician in Russia, Security Council chief Alexander Lebed, today in an attempt to settle a political brawl that has paralyzed his administration and cast doubt on his personal authority.
Yeltsin, appearing ill and weak a month before scheduled heart bypass surgery, ended Lebed's four stormy months in government with a surprise announcement on the evening television news. He accused Lebed of blatant presidential politicking, engaging in bitter public feuds with cabinet ministers and repeatedly acting without authorization, behavior Yeltsin denounced as "harmful for Russia."
"Of course, one cannot tolerate this situation any longer," he said, taking pen and paper and signing the order firing Lebed.
At a news conference two hours later, Lebed said he was unfazed by his dismissal and plans to return to politics as soon as Monday, possibly mounting a presidential election campaign in the event Yeltsin dies. "I am no good as a bureaucrat," he said. "I cannot make a proper bow or act in a servile manner."
Lebed's dismissal is a victory for a loose coalition of entrenched and powerful officials, some of them with presidential ambitions of their own, who resented his sudden rise to prominence and his skill at playing the maverick, courting the news media and wooing voters. They include Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and the head of the presidential administration, Anatoly Chubais, who will now preside as practically unchallenged power brokers in the government, as well as the steely, political machine-style mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov.
The firing is not likely to have broad policy implications for the government, if only because it was Lebed's bald ambition and peerless popularity that caused such a stir -- not his views on the issues, which are vague.
The important exception, however, is Chechnya, where he was almost single-handedly responsible for brokering a peace plan with separatist guerrillas this summer in the face of opposition from much of Russia's political establishment. Without the driving force of Lebed's personality and his determination to end the war, prospects for continued peace in the rebellious region are uncertain and the deal he struck may end up a political orphan.
In Washington, Clinton administration officials refused to comment on Lebed's dismissal, calling it an "internal Russian matter." State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said the U.S.-Russian relationship "is a stable one and is moving forward in a routine way."
Republican presidential candidate Robert J. Dole said in a statement that the firing of Lebed "reminds us all that the situation in Russia remains uncertain." Yeltsin's action, he said, "does raise concern for stability and continued progress toward a peaceful resolution of the conflict in Chechnya," and represents "further proof that our Russia policy must be based on American interests and respond to the reality of events in Russia, rather than on wishful thinking and personality preferences."
For months, Yeltsin had balked at firing Lebed despite the bitter Kremlin rivalries. The former army general's popularity with Russian voters continued to soar after his strong showing in presidential elections in June, and Yeltsin seemed loath to make a martyr of him by firing him. Yeltsin himself became a popular hero after he was ganged-up on and fired by the ruling Soviet Politburo in the fall of 1987 as Communist rule was waning. But as Lebed's highly personal disputes with senior officials boiled over, the Russian leader was left with little choice.
For Yeltsin, the latest and most sensational bit of intrigue also seemed to be the final straw -- an allegation Wednesday by Russia's top law enforcement official, Gen. Anatoly Kulikov, the internal affairs minister, that Lebed was plotting to seize power in a coup to be carried out by a 50,000-man "Russian Legion" with the help of 1,500 Chechen guerrillas.
Kulikov is among Lebed's most hated rivals, and there is little hard evidence to support the charge, which Lebed denied. But the open melee -- complete with beefed-up security at key installations around Moscow and jitters on financial markets in Russia and abroad -- was an embarrassment to Yeltsin, reinforcing an image of an ailing, impotent, remote leader unable to keep his lieutenants in line.
The dispute between Lebed and Kulikov began over Chechnya. Lebed blamed Kulikov for bungling Moscow's handling of the conflict -- which took at least 30,000 lives, most of them civilians -- and Kulikov called Lebed's peace deal "treason." But it has escalated into something much more personal. Early today, it seemed to be spinning out of control when Lebed's formidable entourage of bodyguards -- he generally is surrounded by about a dozen -- detained at least two Internal Affairs Ministry policemen who Lebed said were following him.
Lebed himself interrogated the officers and released them, calling the incident a "provocation." The Interfax news agency quoted an Internal Affairs Ministry general as saying that Lebed's actions were unlawful and that the police might have to "respond to force with force."
The dismissal "was inevitable," said Andrei Piontkovsky of the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies. "Lebed deliberately provoked the authorities."
That was Yeltsin's view as well. In his brief televised address, he recalled that Lebed had asked to resign recently. At that time, "I said to him that he must learn to work in coordination with all state bodies and leaders," said a scowling Yeltsin, sounding like a vexed school principal. "If you quarrel with everybody, you will never be able to solve a single problem.
"Well, we parted, and I did not accept his resignation, thinking that he would draw conclusions. He did not."
The Russian leader, speaking from a health spa outside Moscow where he is resting until his surgery, also hinted at his resentment over Lebed's open jockeying for the presidency. Lebed has said he might become president before Yeltsin's term expires in 2000, an ambition he might realistically achieve only through elections following the president's death or physical incapacity.
Yeltsin further tarred Lebed with the brush of his own former Kremlin chief bodyguard, Alexander Korzhakov, a highly unpopular master of political intrigue with whom Lebed, bereft of other allies, has made an alliance in recent days. Yeltsin fired Korzhakov in June, much to the relief of Russian democrats and advocates of clean government.
"They are both alike -- two generals," said Yeltsin. "I cannot tolerate this situation any longer." He then read aloud and signed the decree relieving Lebed of his duties as secretary of the Security Council and presidential national security adviser.
Lebed showed up at his own news conference with a squad of bodyguards and was his usual gruff, theatrical self. At first, he warned that his firing could reignite the war in Chechnya, which he had worked to resolve this summer despite political opponents who said he had handed a victory to the separatists. Later, though, he said he believes "the backbone of the war has been broken."
He denounced "rotten-hearted" officials who opposed him, citing not only Kulikov but also Prime Minister Chernomyrdin and Chubais, Yeltsin's chief of staff. Lebed suggested that the president's men had blocked his access to Yeltsin and conspired to oppose his efforts to fight political corruption and end the Chechen conflict.
"I call on my comrades in arms, my allies and people whom I probably do not know in person [to] not do anything abrupt. We act using only constitutional means," he said.
Chernomyrdin, a staunch Yeltsin loyalist whose cautious, insistently bland persona is a counterpoint to Lebed's swagger and elan, appeared pleased at the news of Lebed's dismissal. Earlier in the day, he had seemed to take sides with Kulikov against Lebed, saying that some of Kulikov's allegations about a coup "correspond with reality." This evening he called Lebed's firing inevitable, and he promised that the Chechen peace will not be jeopardized.
Yeltsin's alliance with Lebed was strained from the start. As a candidate for president, he occasionally had been a harsh critic of the president. But when he finished third in first-round balloting with 15 percent of the vote, Yeltsin turned to him for help in the runoff against Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov.
He named Lebed his chief national security official and fired Lebed's main Kremlin rival, Defense Minister Pavel Grachev. With Lebed's support, Yeltsin then swept to victory in the July runoff.
Shortly thereafter, Lebed launched his scathing attack on Kulikov, accusing him of allowing a bloodbath in Chechnya and threatening to resign if Yeltsin did not fire the internal affairs minister. Yeltsin told both men to cool down and get to work.
"Oh, no!" said Maria Ivanovna, 67, a retired laboratory worker from Lebed's home Tula region, when she learned of Lebed's dismissal this evening. "We want stability, a peaceful life. Yeltsin is cunning and secretive. He can do one thing today and something completely different tomorrow."
Staff writer Michael Dobbs in Washington contributed to this report.