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THE WORLD

Russian Politician Lebed Killed in Crash

Siberia: At least six others die when helicopter carrying the war hero goes down.

April 29, 2002|JOHN DANISZEWSKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — Alexander I. Lebed, a rough-hewn, gravel-voiced general who once seemed bound for Russia's highest office until he overreached and found himself instead in the political wilderness, died Sunday in a helicopter crash in Siberia. He was 52.

Known for helping to defend the Russian parliament building during a 1991 coup attempt by Communist hard-liners and for ending Russia's first war in Chechnya in 1996, the blunt yet charismatic combat veteran had been serving since 1998 as governor of the vast and sparsely populated Krasnoyarsk territory.

At least six other people were killed and about a dozen seriously injured when Lebed's chartered M-8 helicopter reportedly snagged a power line while approaching the party's destination near Yermakovo. Lebed was in the area to attend a ceremony dedicating a new ski area in the Sayan Mountains.

According to colleagues, Lebed's decision to set off Sunday morning despite poor visibility was typical of his restless spirit and lifelong disregard for his safety.

"He said many times that taking risks was in his blood--as a paratrooper he made 368 jumps, all of them successful," recalled Lyudmila V. Selivanova, the former first deputy head of the Krasnoyarsk territorial administration, who had worked with Lebed since 1998. "He always treated fate and security concerns lightly."

But because Lebed had recently been involved in intense power struggles over control of his territory's lucrative nickel and aluminum industries, questions were raised by some politicians that the fatal flight might have been sabotaged. Russian President Vladimir V. Putin promised a thorough investigation.

Lebed, a native of southern Russia whose ancestors included Cossacks of the Don River region, had a penchant for pithy utterances--delivered in his trademark basso growl--that stayed in the public mind. "He who shoots first laughs last," he once observed. Another time, to show disdain of critics, he noted, "The dogs bark, but the caravan passes."

A hero of Russia's war in Afghanistan during the 1980s, he rocketed to political superstardom in Russia in 1995 after being relieved of his army command in the Trans-Dniester region. The dismissal followed years of bickering with then-Defense Minister Gen. Pavel S. Grachev over what Lebed viewed as misguided army reforms--and what Grachev considered to be Lebed's habitual insubordination.

During three years as the head of Russia's 14th Army in Trans-Dniester, Lebed imposed peace in the troubled breakaway section of the former Soviet republic of Moldova and gave the army's protection to ethnic Russians there who said they were under threat.

Lebed's tough-guy stances, unvarnished patriotism and apparent freedom from any hint of corruption won public approval. He entered the Duma, the lower house of parliament, after leaving the army. The following year, he was popular enough to challenge incumbent Boris N. Yeltsin for the presidency. A frank militarist, Lebed made no secret of his admiration for strong leaders such as France's Charles de Gaulle or Chile's Gen. Augusto Pinochet. He once argued that "preserving the army is the basis for preserving the government."

In the end, however, Lebed came in third in the 1996 election, behind Yeltsin and the Communist standard-bearer, Gennady A. Zyuganov. To win Lebed's crucial endorsement for the second round of voting, Yeltsin promised him a significant say in the next administration. After the election, Lebed was named the president's national security advisor--charged with resolving the war against separatists in the Russian republic of Chechnya.

Handed a seemingly impossible task, Lebed went to Chechnya to negotiate with the rebels, engineered a cease-fire and agreed to withdraw Russian troops.

At the height of his popularity, with Yeltsin ailing and preparing for open-heart surgery, Lebed went too far. He hinted that it was time for the president to cede power to him.

After Yeltin's operation, the revitalized president quickly fired the retired general.

Driven from government, Lebed could only chafe from a distance. He finally ran for governor of Krasnoyarsk in 1998--backed by wealthy business interests--presumably to establish a base from which to run for the presidency in 2000.

But Yeltsin trumped Lebed by unexpectedly resigning Dec. 31, 1999, and handing the presidency to Putin, who was then prime minister. The new president rapidly eclipsed his rivals in popularity, in part by pursuing a new war in Chechnya, and Lebed found himself more sidelined than ever.

For the last two years, Lebed had been much more a regional player than an important figure on the national stage. Yet the eulogies that poured in Sunday reflected the lingering fascination felt for him. For all his faults and blunders, he remained for many a figure of romance and daring.

"Alexander Ivanovich did not allow death to take him when he was either sick or old. Nor did he die in retirement. He died like a true combat general--unexpectedly, while still in his prime, right at work. He died like a true soldier--with his boots on," said his erstwhile colleague, Selivanova.

"To a large extent Lebed has helped create the image of a new type of officer in Russia--a type for a democratic Russia," noted Oleg Morozov, a Duma deputy. "He was valiant, disobedient, proud and independent, [a person] who was willing to relinquish all posts and start everything over from scratch" for what he believed.

*

Alexey Kuznetsov of The Times Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.

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