OCTOBER 17, 1996
In a move that ends months of Kremlin intrigue, infighting and perhaps prevented a coup, Russian President Boris Yeltsin fired his controversial Security Chief Alexander Lebed. To discuss what this move means to Russia's stability and the Chechen ceasefire, Elizabeth Farnsworth is joined by a panel of Russia experts. This follows a background report from Independent Television News.
A RealAudio version of this NewsHour segment is available.
October 17, 1996:
A panel of Russia experts discuss the implications of Lebed's firing.
October 3, 1996:
Russian President Boris Yeltsin is to spend at least another month in a hospital bed in preparation for surgery. One of his consulting doctors, Dr. Michael De Bakey, updates Charlayne Hunter-Gault on his condition.
July 4, 1996:
With Boris Yeltsin now the official victor in the Russian presidential elections, Special Correspondent Simon Marks takes a look at the significance of this win and looks back on the campaign.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: We get three views now. Stephen Cohen is Professor of Russian Politics at Princeton University. Michael McFaul is Professor of Political Science at Stanford University and a senior associate affiliated with the Carnegie Endowment's Moscow Center. And Dimitri Simes is the founding president of the Nixon Center for Peace and Freedom in Washington. Thank you all for being with us. And Stephen Cohen, beginning with you, is the struggle for succession to the ailing president spinning out of control here?
STEPHEN COHEN, Princeton University: Well, it's spun out of control. Imagine the charges that these men at the very top who are participants in the struggle for power are making these against each other. Just in the last few days, they've called each other assassins, felons who have stolen money, uh, accused each other of potential mutiny. This is astonishing stuff.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Is this--in your view, is this a very serious situation that could easily become explosive?
MR. COHEN: Well, my view of what's happened in Russia in the last five years or so is different, I think, from the prevailing view in the United States. I believe that Russia is terribly unstable socially, economically, and politically. But now that we have rampant political instability at the top, it's possible it could trigger more instability below. So I think it's an explosive situation, and I would just add one thing; that what we're obviously seeing is a great hunger for power, and it's being driven by something even more alarming, and that is fear, fear of being held responsible for what's happened in the country, and that is why the political elite around President Yeltsin so hates and fears Gen. Lebed.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Do you agree with that, that is driven by fear?
DIMITRI SIMES, Nixon Center: Oh absolutely. Steve is exactly right. Mr. Lebed is a maverick. Mr. Lebed doesn't play by the rules. Mr. Lebed was not a low team player, but this is Russia. They operate in a very different environment. Mr. Yeltsin hired Mr. Lebed as his partner.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: He hired him as his partner.
MR. SIMES: Yes. Not just as his subordinate. Mr. Lebed is the most popular politician in the country. But the moment Mr. Lebed delivered the vote and Yeltsin became president again, they began marginalizing Gen. Lebed. Yeltsin would be very reluctant to meet with him, and not only Chubais. Yeltsin, all powerful chief of staff, who is widely accused of being involved with most corrupt Russian bankers, he began to perceive Mr. Lebed as an outsider who wants to change the way Russia is ruled, and who is a threat to Russian corruption, and the oligarchy around Yeltsin, they decided that this is time to get rid of this man.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So you think that's why they got rid of him, because he was getting close to dealing with some important corruption matters?
MR. SIMES: Because he was threatening the corrupt way these people rule Russia after unfree and unfair Russian elections, and second of all because they were concerned that Yeltsin is going to have surgery, and they knew that if Lebed is around as secretary of Security Council he would not allow Mr. Chubais and other corrupt people around Yeltsin to issue decrees in Yeltsin's name.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What about that, Michael McFaul, do you think it's partly because Yeltsin is about to have surgery, or apparently about to have surgery, it's apparently unclear again, and Chubais, the chief of staff, and other people didn't want Lebed in a position to stop what they might do?
MICHAEL McFAUL, Stanford University: Almost certainly. That is why it happened today and not six months from now or a month before. After all, if Lebed is in the Kremlin and something does happen to Boris Yeltsin, he has the power and the authority and the platform to call their bluff, to say, hey, what's really going on with Mr. Yeltsin. Chubais and Mr. Chernomyrdin, the prime minister, don't want him around if, God forbid, something should happen to the President.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. McFaul, tell us something about Lebed. The New York Times Sunday Magazine, somebody was quoted as saying he's a character out of Tolstoy from another age. Is that the way you put it?
MR. McFAUL: Well, he's not from another age, but he is from another region. He's not from Moscow. He doesn't play Moscow politics. He's very new to Moscow politics, as we saw in the first months of him coming to power. He cut a deal with the Yeltsin team but a side of the team that was ousted, that's Mr. Korjakov, Mr. Soskaviesk, the party that, that Yeltsin got rid of in favor of Mr. Chubais, so when he came to the Kremlin, he found himself surrounded not by friends but by enemies. It's natural that this kind of conflict should occur.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Tell us more about Lebed.
MR. SIMES: Well, the first thing to know about Mr. Lebed is that he is an honest man, which is very unusual in the Russian power. Second, he is a genuine Russian patriot. I don't mean that he is an extremist. He is not xenophobic, but he is a man who is upset about the way the Soviet Union collapsed, about Russia no longer being the serious power, and he wants to preside over Russia once again being the major voice in international politics. But finally, and that makes him very vulnerable, he doesn't know when to stop. He's a very smart man. He's a very shrewd man, but sometimes he thinks very fast, but sometimes he speaks much faster than he thinks, and this is why whoever wants to get him gets a lot of ammunition from Gen. Lebed.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I understand you've spoken to him recently on the phone. How does he explain what's happening to him?
MR. SIMES: Well, he, of course, knew that Mr. Chubais was after him. He knew that the president despised him, and he knew that they would not want, as Michael McFaul said, to have him around during and particularly after the Yeltsin surgery when they would not have Yeltsin's authority to restrain Lebed. So he expected something like that could happen. What he clearly did not expect, that they would accuse him of plotting coup de tat, and his argument is, he says, if I was plotting coup de tat, why I would first spoil my relations with minister of internal affairs, then my relations with minister of defense, which forces was I supposed to use, and why the most popular politician in the country wants a coup de tat, you want a coup de tat against him, and that's actually what happened today.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Steven Cohen, what does all this say about President Yeltsin's role and his health and who's running the show?
MR. COHEN: Well, it says above all that the people around him are afraid that he'll never return to the presidency. I think what we have now in the Kremlin is a split, or we did at least as long as Lebed was still there, is a split between those who want to compel or force Yeltsin to resign on grounds of health and therefore trigger new elections. Those are the people who think they would benefit from elections, and that presumably would include General Lebed. And then there are the people who under no circumstances want to see President Yeltsin leave power even if physically he cannot exercise the powers of the presidency. And it's this threat I think that we're seeing played out today. I'd like to add something about Lebed because he's a familiar figure in Russian history. These figures emerge occasionally in times when Russians, ordinary Russians, are in great distress, in great social pain, and Russians feel that not only their pain is being ignored by the government but that the government is lying to them. And then comes a figure who promises to tell the truth and clean up the mess, and that's really what brought Yeltsin to the power he had, and which got him 15 percent, quite remarkably, the presidential vote. He promised to tell the truth. He's a kind of holy fool, holy that he'll tell the truth but a fool that he would take over the establishment. That makes him an endangered political leader. He's a threat to the establishment. But it also gives him power, and I think if the poll was taken tomorrow in Russia, you're likely to find that his ratings have gone through the ceiling because he's a victim, Russians like a victim, but moreover he would say I tried to tell the truth, I tried to clean up the mess, but they wouldn't let me. And so he will grow in popular standing, but he will, therefore, become even a greater threat to them, and, therefore, he's a very endangered man. It's not an accident that he has an enormous bodyguard.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Michael McFaul, do you agree with that, endangered man, a holy fool?
MR. McFAUL: Well, I agree with the analysis until we get to that point, that he's an endangered man, because let's take another character, another maverick, a similar type that was in the party of power, got thrown out in 1987, but then came back through the electoral process to take over the country eventually, Boris Yeltsin. That's how the politics here are different, that everybody is making calculations based on electoral politics. If there weren't elections or the threat or the specter of elections in Russia, we wouldn't even be having this conversation today because he would just be another minister moved out of power, no threat to a military regime. That's not what is in Russia today, and because of that, it creates ambiguity about who will be the next leader of Russia.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Michael McFaul, do you think there's a chance the military could get involved in this, or that there could be a split in the military?
MR. McFAUL: I today--talking today, and maybe I'll change my mind tomorrow, but today I don't think it's possible. The military went through this. They did this in 1991, they did it again in 1993, they've had a disaster in Chechnya. I don't see where the forces are available on either side, either the Chernomyrdin-Chubais said, or on the Lebed side to say okay, all rules--we're going to break the rules of the game today, we're going into an authoritarian regime, and we're going to storm the Kremlin and take over. I don't know who those people are.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What do you think about that, Mr. Simes?
MR. SIMES: I think that Mr. McFaul is absolutely right. The military is not going to move today for Lebed or against Lebed. But I just hope that President Yeltsin, who is a wonderful man but a very imperfect president, that he will survive and will stay on the job, because if he doesn't, I am concerned that several months from now they will have elections, Lebed will be a clear frontrunner, they will try to steal elections from Lebed, they will be very reckless and very open about it, and then Lebed will resist, and then all the hell can break loose.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What do you think the U.S. administration, the Clinton administration should be doing about this? Sec. Perry just happens to be in Moscow at the moment.
MR. SIMES: Well, first of all, they should be doing exactly what they are doing now, not becoming openly involved in Russian internal politics. After all, Yeltsin has every constitutional right to fire Mr. Lebed. But we also should indicate to them privately but firmly and the emphasis on firmly, that if they try some extra legal procedures against Mr. Lebed, that if they will try to put him on show trial, or try to assassinate him, that of course will be unacceptable in the United States and would have implications for U.S.-Russian relations. It's not just a question of how various. We don't want instability in Russia, and Mr. McFaul is right. Very imperfect Russian elections are still much better than if they go to the street and start shooting at each other.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Stephen Cohen, do you have anything to add to that about U.S. policy?
MR. COHEN: Only that I guess I disagree with Prof. McFaul and Dimitri on this one. I think we should hope that there will be elections, but I don't think it's the certainty that Prof. McFaul thinks that it is. I think it's very uncertain how power will pass. Secondly, I guess I see a different Russia from Michael and Dimitri. I see the military already deeply, deeply, too deeply involved in politics. Let us remember Lebed is a general. Kulikov, who appeared in your setup piece, is a general. Rodinov, the defense minister, is on the attack now. The top men in the country who control the guns are now on the center of the political stage, and they're split. So the question of whether the military is going to become involved has already been answered. As for American policy, in a word I believe American policy has been fundamentally wrongheaded toward Russia for five years, and therefore I would hope we would not continue to do what we've been doing. It is a kind of ironic accident of history that Sec. Perry is in Moscow today at the very time that this has unfolded. It kind of illustrates for us that something terribly wrong has happened in our policy toward Russia.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Gentlemen, thank you very much for being with us.