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Wishing the 'Swan' Well in His Mission

June 23, 1996|Gregory Friedin | Gregory Friedin, chairman of the Slavic department at Stanford University, is coauthor of "Russia at the Barricades: Eyewitness Accounts of the August, 1991, Coup" (M.E. Sharp Publishers)

STANFORD — We must wish well Alexander Ivanovich Lebed--or "Swan" as his name means in Russian--in his effort to rout out crime and corruption in Russia and give his countrymen a sense of security--a kind of security that, historically, they have never had. As the newly appointed head of President Boris N. Yeltsin's National Security Council (the government entity with increasing authority over internal security, police, military and foreign intelligence); as the proverbial young and dynamic heir apparent; as the instant triple winner in Russia's "power ministries" roulette, Lebed now has concentrated in his hands all the tools that the Russian state has in its closet for cleaning house. And a clean house is what Russian voters seem to want most of all.

"Now, charge!" rumbled Yeltsin after introducing Lebed to the members of the National Security Council.

"Ready to serve my Fatherland." Lebed barked back the traditional military response. And heads rolled--the heads of four of Russia's most powerful men: the defense minister, Army Gen. Pavel S. Grachev; the secret service head, Alexander V. Korzhakov; head of the intelligence services, Gen. Mikhail I. Barsukov; and the first deputy prime minister with responsibility for the military-industrial complex, Oleg N. Soskovets.

Lebed's energy and forthrightness, plus his terse and folksy idiom ("He wants the president to jump into the toilet and pull the chain" was his comment on pro-reformist Grigory Yavlinsky's conditions for joining forces with Yeltsin) have earned him popular admiration and will stand him in good stead.

Yet, Lebed's sudden elevation and prominence should also give us pause. The expectations he has generated among the jaded Russian electorate are far greater than any one leader can possibly meet. For Lebed is engaging in battle not just with the recent wave of crime and corruption--a "tsunami of crap," as he put it in his autobiography--but with the whole history of crooked government in his country.

Almost three centuries ago, according to legend, Peter the Great once became so indignant at the depravity of his Senate that he threatened to hang every senator found guilty of bribe-taking or embezzle- ment (that he did hang one, the governor of Siberia, is a matter of record). "Your majesty," said one senator, "if this indeed be the law of the empire, your majesty alone would remain in the government." Such are the tales of the origins of Russia's civil service.

In the subsequent 300 years, Russia's bureaucracy has undergone much expansion and change but not much improvement--certainly not as far as its public image is concerned. The incompetence and the failures of the Soviet state were conveniently attributed to the same scapegoat that had to be forever "struggled against" and "purged" by the party. In the meantime, the corrupt civil service prospered handsomely, aided by government central planning, secrecy, endemic shortages and pandemic black markets--all a breeding ground for organized crime.

The collapse of communism created a new set of problems: The old laws became irrelevant in many ways, and as Russia plunged into a free market, aspects of the economic and social life that emerged remain unregulated. The legislature, mired in factional politics, has been unable to keep up with the demand for new laws, and the executive branch has been too weak and corrupt to enforce the existing ones vigorously. To make matters worse, the unbridled sensationalism of the newly liberated media and the relative innocence of people unaccustomed to open crime statistics have created in the public mind a picture of a most unmitigated bleakness--whether it involved high-level corruption or ordinary street crime.

Such is the situation that Lebed now faces--a task beyond a single politician, especially one as new and untried. Failures are inevitable. And Lebed, who is regarded as thoughtful and intelligent, must be aware of the risks to his political future. The decision to try this stems either from foolhardiness--not likely--or apparently from the general's powerful sense of mission. Where this personal courage comes from and what that mission might be are, perhaps, the most interesting questions of this campaign season.

Russia's reform politics have been dominated by teams where the older generation of former top-level Communist leaders are linked to members of Russia's intellectual or technocratic elite--generally younger people unskilled in the hand-to-hand combat style of Russian politics.

Yeltsin and Yegor T. Gaidar are a case in point. Since early 1993, the picture has been modified: Yeltsin and Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, on the one hand, facing other members of the original Gaidar team. But the pattern remained

the same: The old party war horses provide the political cover for the reform intellectuals. By inviting Lebed to join him at the top, Yeltsin has opened a new chapter in Russia's post-Communist politics.

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