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Russia's Bureaucratic Corruption Has New Foe

Crime: Security chief Lebed is going after deep-rooted dishonesty. And some in Kremlin think he could succeed.

September 23, 1996|VANORA BENNETT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — Disgusted by the shameless greed of his aides, Czar Peter the Great ordered the immediate execution of any official caught stealing from the government even the cost of a piece of rope.

But the aide taking down the order paused. "Does Your Majesty wish to live alone in the empire without any subjects?" he asked.

Three centuries have passed, but no ruler has had any more luck than Peter in wiping out corruption in Russia's vast administrative apparatus.

So expectations were low when retired Gen. Alexander I. Lebed was appointed Russian security chief by President Boris N. Yeltsin, despite Lebed's promise of clean politics and "an absolutely new approach."

Now, however, the onetime paratrooper has begun to confound his critics with a corruption-busting strategy so unorthodox that even the wiliest of courtiers have been caught napping. And some in Moscow's corridors of power have begun to hope that Lebed's surprise tactics, and his willingness to drag dark Kremlin secrets out into broad daylight, might eventually win the war against bureaucratic crime.

"The battle against corruption has been going on for the last 1,000 years," Lebed boomed confidently after his appointment. "But our bureaucrats are hardened and not easy to fight. So long as they have a chance to steal something, they will steal it. So I guess we just need to change our tack."

The pessimists said he was too provincial, too much of a military straight arrow and too politically inexperienced to beat the subtle Kremlin courtiers, who would be doing battle for their shady profits on their own turf.

Early on, he sensed the possibility of ambush inside the Kremlin. With sound military instinct, he decamped to more familiar terrain--by getting Yeltsin to give him an extra job as peacemaker in Chechnya, where Russian troops had been at war with the republic's separatists for nearly two years.

Lebed used the peace deal he clinched with Chechen fighters recently to relentlessly expose corruption in the Russian power ministries. From safety outside the Kremlin walls, he has lobbed bombshell after media bombshell back at his Moscow targets.

He stormed back to Moscow from a first Chechen trip accusing the Moscow military top brass of pursuing a "criminal, commercial" war in the south, against Russia's best interests, to line their own pockets.

Although he failed in his bid to have Interior Minister Anatoly S. Kulikov fired, Lebed managed to force the establishment out into the open to answer his challenges.

By separating the warring sides in Chechnya, he also cut off the flow of money from undercover arms sales to the rebels, just one of many abuses in the war, which Russian investigative journalist Alexander Minkin has described as "the root of corruption in Russia."

"I have won this chess game. I won it even with the disadvantage of not starting first. And I [had the modesty to] make it look like a draw," Lebed said triumphantly.

Now the corrupt and conservative aides who brought Yeltsin's first administration into disrepute have been routed. The orthodoxies of Yeltsin's first term in office--that might meant right and possession was nine-tenths of the law--are being questioned. Startled bureaucrats are quickly rethinking loyalties and looking for new protectors.

Although tension is visible between Lebed and other rivals for influence in the Kremlin--including Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin and Yeltsin's new chief of staff, Anatoly B. Chubais--the savvy mayor of Moscow, Yuri M. Luzhkov, has opted to back Lebed.

Lebed's success has enchanted the liberal media, which were initially suspicious of the man who once enthused about former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet. Now, between lyrical praise for his strategy and crisp sound-bites, newspapers feature pictures of a Lebed smiling faintly and looking reflective, as smoke curls gently up from his cigarette holder, or playing chess with Chechen rebels.

The recent successes are a far cry from his awkward start in June--when he was still at the bottom of the political learning curve and his first move against Yeltsin aides earned him only suspicion.

The price Lebed had demanded for taking his job was the dismissal of the hawkish defense minister, Pavel S. Grachev, universally loathed not only because of Chechnya but also because of a widespread belief that he had abused his office. With Grachev, nicknamed "Pasha Mercedes," went a handful of his allies.

No one was sorry to see Grachev go. But no one was impressed with the way Lebed handled his removal. Justifying the surprise firings, Lebed first said a coup had been in the offing. The hysterical language of coup and counter-coup strengthened fears in Moscow that the general might want to impose some sort of military rule on Russia.

Lebed hastily retracted his allegations when he realized that the only response in his new environment was raised eyebrows and skepticism.

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