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Yeltsin Fires Ambitious Lebed In Attempt to Settle Conflicts

By Lee Hockstader
The Washington Post
MOSCOW

A grim President Boris Yeltsin Thursday fired the most popular politician in Russia, National Security Council chief Alexander Lebed, in an attempt to settle a nasty political brawl that has paralyzed his administration and cast doubt on his personal authority.

Yeltsin, appearing ill and weak a month ahead of scheduled heart bypass surgery, ended Lebed's four stormy months in government with a surprise announcement on the 6 o'clock television news. He denounced Lebed's blatant presidential politicking, his bitter public feuds with cabinet ministers, and his penchant for acting without authorization as "inadmissible and harmful to Russia."

"Of course, one cannot tolerate this situation any longer," he said, taking pen and paper and signing the order to fire Lebed.

In a packed news conference two hours later, Lebed said he was unfazed by his dismissal and planned to return to politics starting as soon as Monday, including a possible 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 media, and wooing the 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, machine-style mayor of Moscow, Yuri Luzhkov.

The firing is not likely to have broad policy implications for the Russian 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 breakaway region are uncertain, and the deal he struck may end up as a political orphan.

In Washington, Clinton administration officials refused to comment on the dismissal of Lebed, saying that it was an "internal Russian matter." State department spokesman Nicholas Burns said that the U.S.-Russia relationship "is a stable one and is moving forward in a routine way."

Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole said in a statement that Yeltsin's firing of Lebed "reminds us all that the situation in Russia remains uncertain. (Yeltsin's action) 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 his increasingly bitter rivalries. The former army general's popularity with Russian voters continued to soar after his strong showing in June's presidential elections, and Yeltsin seemed loath to make a martyr of Lebed by firing him. After all, Yeltsin himself became a popular hero after he was ganged up on and fired by the ruling Soviet Politburo in the waning days of communist power.

But as Lebed's bitter and highly personal disputes with senior officials simmered and boiled over, the Russian leader was left with little choice.

For the president, the latest and most sensational bit of intrigue also seemed to be the final straw: the allegation Wednesday by Russia's top cop, Internal Affairs Minister Gen. Anatoly Kulikov, that Lebed was plotting to seize power in a coup 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 hardly a speck of 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 the image of an ailing leader unable to keep his lieutenants in line.

The Russian leader, speaking from a health spa outside Moscow where he is resting before surgery, also hinted at his resentment at Lebed's open jockeying for the presidency.