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Popular Russian general poised to challenge Yeltsin


MOSCOW -- Russia's most charismatic general, Lt. Gen. Alexander I. Lebed, has resigned his army command to protest Kremlin policies and is widely believed to be preparing to run for political office -- possibly challenging President Boris N. Yeltsin in 1996.

Defense Minister Pavel S. Grachev approved General Lebed's letter of resignation yesterday. It is now up to Mr. Yeltsin to decide whether the 45-year-old war hero poses more of a threat from his post as commander of the 14th Army in Trans-Dniester or from outside the army as a political rival.

Although General Lebed has said that he is not interested in the presidency, nobody in Russia believes him -- including the defense minister.

Credited for putting an end to a bloody ethnic conflict in Moldova and for blasting Russian political and military incompetence in Chechnya, General Lebed is consistently ranked the most popular general in the Russian army and among the top 10 most popular political figures in the country.

He said he is resigning in protest over Kremlin plans to downsize the 14th Army command in Tiraspol, Moldova. General Lebed has warned that weakening the Russian peacekeeping force could trigger "another Chechnya" in the breakaway Moldovan province, where hundreds of people were killed in 1992 fighting between ethnic Russian and Ukrainian secessionists and Moldovan nationalists.

Analysts said that General Lebed's resignation would likely boost his soaring popularity among the many Russians who long for a strong, even dictatorial, leader to bring discipline to post-Soviet anarchy.

General Lebed -- who admires former Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet, speaks out against Russian moral decline and is untainted by the corruption scandals that have devastated the image of the once-beloved Russian army -- seems made for the part.

"With customary submissiveness, the people are degenerating into poverty and filth, getting drunk and stealing," he told the Prism newsletter last month, bemoaning Russia's post-Soviet loss of spiritual identity and self-respect.

In an April interview, he said: "Man has teeth for more than munching. You've got to show them once in a while. Force makes the world go round."

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