MOSCOW -- The voters of the vast Krasnoyarsk region have put a general in power, and that's got Moscow worried. Now Alexander I. Lebed will find out if winning the governorship in Russia's second-largest region can be a springboard to the Kremlin, or just another form of Siberian exile.
Lebed is the salty, pugilistic tough guy who stands for common sense and order and has made only the vaguest pronouncements on policy or economics. Even people who are wary of him are attracted to him.
He defies the Yeltsin administration and quarrels with Communists, and he will always be remembered as the army general who never wavered in his criticism of the war in Chechnya -- a war he eventually brought to an end during a brief stint as head of President Boris N. Yeltsin's security council.
Despite skepticism about Lebed's intentions, the voters of Krasnoyarsk gave him a landslide victory Sunday over the Kremlin-backed incumbent, Valery Zubov.
The win would put Lebed among the front-runners for the presidency in the year 2000 -- but only if he can first show results in a distant territory, which stretches from the arctic nearly to the Mongolian border, is rich in nickel and forests, and is plagued by wage arrears and discontent. He has two years to do it.
"I will work on promoting the redistribution of power," Lebed said yesterday -- meaning a redistribution away from Moscow. Two other regions, Smolensk and Karelia, also elected governors on Sunday who ran against the Yeltsin administration, but Siberia has become a stronghold of outspoken, anti-Moscow governors. Lebed's brother, Alexei, another retired general, is in control of neighboring Khakassia.
Grigory Yavlinsky, head of the liberal Yabloko bloc in parliament and himself a likely candidate for president, said the results of the weekend's elections showed that Russians "were voting for any alternative."
The unhappiness is real: Unpaid coal miners in the Siberian region of Kemerovo have blocked the Trans-Siberian railroad for three days, and yesterday other lines were blocked elsewhere in the country. In northern Vorkuta, miners took their boss hostage. Restive students clashed with police in Yekaterinburg last month.
Lebed already took one crack at the presidency -- in 1996, when he finished third in the first round of voting, with 15 percent. Yeltsin enticed him to join the administration before the second round, helping cement the president's re-election. As head of the security council, Lebed negotiated an end to the war in Chechnya, and soon after got shoved out of his job on the grounds that he was too ambitious.
Lebed has become more polished since then. Yesterday, he held a news conference where, in his deep, pay-attention voice, he said he wouldn't be taking any political or economic questions.
He did say that he has no plans for a wholesale reshuffling of the Krasnoyarsk government, apparently trying to buck the victors-and-spoils equation that many of Russia's new democrats have taken to previously undreamed-of extremes.
"Soldiers are the same everywhere," he said, choosing an image that may not be comforting to everyone. "Generals need to be changed. It depends on generals whether the soldier wins or loses."
If Lebed had been expecting a honeymoon, he didn't get one.
Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky, the flamboyant nationalist, said it was understandable that a region with nothing but forests in it would elect a man like Lebed; the rest of Russia, he declared, was more sophisticated than that.
Gennady Zyuganov, the Communist leader, said: "If Boris Yeltsin ruined the Soviet Union in 1991, Lebed will do his best to ruin Russia."
A reporter asked Lebed yesterday if he weren't what the Russians call a "wedding general" -- traditionally, a general who is hired to show up at a wedding in his most magnificent uniform, simply to make the occasion look as grand as possible.
"Nobody has ever seen me as a wedding general," the plain and unpolished 48-year-old replied slowly, with a touch of menace in his voice -- and with the added benefit that, in Russian, he was able to use a triple negative, which gave unmistakable punch to his denial.
Yeltsin's spokesman, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, congratulated Lebed on behalf of his boss and said that the Kremlin wanted to work with the new governors to eliminate the causes of the "protest vote."
It is too early to talk about Lebed's role in the 2000 elections, Yastrzhembsky said, because of the "tremendous burden" awaiting him as governor of Krasnoyarsk -- a region more than three times larger than Texas, with just 3 million residents.
Lebed himself wasn't issuing any calls to the barricades. He promised to "use power judiciously, accurately, cautiously -- because people are very tired."
Pub Date: 5/19/98