Angrily ending a four-month-old marriage of political convenience, Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin on Thursday stripped Alexander I. Lebed of the powerful job of security chief that he had bestowed on him early this summer and cast the flamboyant former general out of the Kremlin.
Yeltsin said his aim was to end infighting over the presidential succession, at fever pitch since he announced Sept. 5 that he would undergo heart bypass surgery this year. Yeltsin said Lebed’s presidential ambitions were to blame for destroying the unity of Russia’s government.
“I cannot tolerate this situation and am obliged to relieve Gen. Lebed of his duties as secretary of the Security Council,” a puffy-faced, ponderous Yeltsin said in a brief televised speech.
An assistant then produced a document - the decree dismissing Lebed - that the president signed with an exaggerated flourish.
Lebed’s sacking sent shock waves through the Russian establishment. A charismatic soldier-turned-politician whose gruff honesty won him 11 million votes in presidential elections this summer before he joined Yeltsin’s team, Lebed is now on the loose again with no ties of loyalty binding him to Yeltsin, his one-time mentor.
With much of the 1 million-member Russian army loyal to Lebed and angry at the government’s failure to pay their wages for three months, and with discontent growing all over the public sector over the lack of back pay, Yeltsin’s abrupt action has set the scene for an autumn of upheaval.
Lebed, though, quickly ruled out open rebellion, making clear he wanted to win the next presidency with ballots not bullets. “I am addressing all the comrades with whom I have fought and served, and those whom I do not know: We have exhausted the limits of revolutions, bloodshed, cataclysms and wars. So there must be no abrupt actions. We are using only legitimate, constitutional, legal methods,” he said.
Lebed had shrugged off dramatic allegations made Wednesday by hard-line Interior Minister Anatoly S. Kulikov - a bitter personal enemy - that he was plotting to take power by force without going through the motions of a presidential election. Lebed on Thursday suggested that Kulikov’s real motive in airing his claims was to divert attention from himself, as Lebed insisted he was preparing evidence for Yeltsin that would prove the interior minister had mishandled Russia’s war in the separatist region of Chechnya.
Lebed made clear he aimed now to become a powerful focus for the millions of people humiliated and dispossessed in Yeltsin’s Russia. He was not leaving politics, he said, and he would begin to prepare for possible future presidential elections. He warned that his country faced a “hot autumn” because of slapdash government economic policy.
“Just how hot the autumn will be will depend on how smart the government is,” Lebed said. “Everyone is fed up with fairy tales. You have to pay the bills. … The army is in a sorry state. The economy is in a sorry state. The ecology is in a sorry state. Energy is in a sorry state. I have the impression that, if something gives way, everything will be sucked into this vortex.”
How far Lebed will now succeed in establishing himself as a voice of conscience in the Russian political scene is unclear. A recent poll showed him to be Russia’s most trusted politician at a time of deep skepticism about Yeltsin’s postelection presidential team.
And Thursday’s events made Yeltsin’s ability to rule Russia seem even more murky. Defense Secretary William J. Perry, visiting Moscow to try to persuade Russian lawmakers to approve a major nuclear arms treaty, said Yeltsin’s decisive action “proved that when it comes to the crunch, he will act.”
But Lebed painted a bleak picture of a Kremlin run not by an enfeebled Yeltsin but by his shadowy “regent,” Anatoly B. Chubais, the presidential chief-of-staff.
Lebed refused to blame Yeltsin personally for the ills he sees, saying: “I believe I am well-brought-up enough not to open a barrage of criticism against an old, sick man.” But he repeated that Yeltsin should have left office when he became ill and should not be leaving Russia open to rule by aides with power but no responsibility.
Chubais, along with Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, have been Lebed’s chief foes, members of what he called the “party of power.” Chubais is widely believed to have made most day-to-day decisions for Yeltsin since his latest bout of ill health befell him in July. Lebed said Chubais was now the “only person” running the Kremlin. “I was in the way of Mr. Chubais’ efforts to build up the system of regency. He wants to become president. He is saving up his money for that,” Lebed said.
Russian Communists, defeated in the July elections that returned Yeltsin to power, gloated over Thursday’s firing, saying they had pointed out from the start that the president had only appointed Lebed in a last-ditch bid to defeat Gennady A. Zyuganov, their candidate.
Earlier in the day, Chernomyrdin appealed to the military to stay calm.