Alexander Lebed defies definitions.

Some fear him as a Russian Napoleon dreaming of supreme power. Others see a defender of democracy. Still others consider him just a battle-hardened soldier turned skillful politician.In just a few months, the former two-star general has become one of the most important politicians in Russia and is tipped by some people as Boris Yeltsin's heir.

The 46-year-old Lebed wants Yeltsin's place - but says he has "all the time in the world."

He left the army in 1994 after 25 years of service, and he easily won a Parliament seat in elections last December. Then in the June 16 presidential election, he finished a strong third with 11 million votes.

Lebed likes authority, but above all he is a pragmatist who advocates force only when unavoidable. He is blunt with a strong sense of mission.

"Our Russian state is just being born," Lebed wrote in his election manifesto. "We must purge it of the dirt of previous rulers. We must make it humane."

Lebed appeals to hard-liners with his vision of a strong army and a mighty Russia and to reformers with a liberal economic program.

His slogan of "Truth and Order" and promise to purge corruption and crime appeal to many Russians. He blasts the communist past and the "even greater vileness and lies" of today's Russia.

Lebed sees Russia as a battlefield of two ideas - the old idea of communism and the new of imperfect democracy.

"I'm choosing the new idea,"

Lebed announced after joining forces with Yeltsin last Tuesday. "You cannot go very far with old ideas."

Lebed's distaste for communism goes back to his childhood. Under Josef Stalin, his father was sent to a prison camp for being late for work. When Nazi Germany invaded Russia in 1941, the father was sent to a punishment battalion.

In 1962, as a small boy in the southern city of Novocherkassk, Lebed saw troops shoot striking workers who protested bad living conditions.

But Lebed, a former Communist Party member, says real disillusionment came only in 1990 when he became a delegate to a party congress in Moscow.

"A double, a triple morality was running amok within the party," Lebed recalls in his 1995 memoir. "All the authorities ceased to exist for me."

His rise in the military was as swift as his political ascent. He was a battalion commander in 1981 during the Soviet war in Afghanistan, where he won a top medal. By 1989 he was commander of the elite Tula paratroop division.

The years that followed were murky for both Lebed and his country. The Soviet Union was starting to disintegrate, and Lebed found himself trying to quell its mounting ethnic conflicts.

Lebed's paratroopers flew to Baku, Azerbaijan's capital, during anti-Armenian violence. It was one of Lebed's darkest hours when he helped suppress pro-independence rallies and anti-Armenian pogroms. More than 120 Azerbaijanis and at least 25 soldiers died.

A report by Helsinki Watch and Russian Memorial, two human rights groups, said later that ill-prepared troops used excessive force. Shooting at ambulances and using bayonets against civilians were reported.

In his book, Lebed gives only a sketchy description of the Baku events, but denies there were atrocities. Years later, he blamed politicians for misusing the military.

"I am a sinner," he quipped recently. "There is no paratroop general who is free of sin."

During the August 1991 coup by Soviet hard-liners against President Mikhail Gorbachev, Lebed's troops were ordered to surround Yeltsin's stronghold. But he did not move against the defenders.

Praised by reformers when the coup collapsed, Lebed disappointed his admirers. Lebed said he "could not care less for democracy," but, being a Russian general, could not bring himself to kill Russians.

In 1992, as the new commander of Russia's 14th Army, Lebed was sent to Moldova's breakaway region of Trans-Dniester, the scene of ethnic conflict between the Moldovan government and mainly Slav separatists. He was lionized for ending the bloodshed and became the darling of hard-liners and the embittered, cash-strapped army.

By mid-1994, Lebed was moving into politics, calling Yeltsin a "minus" for the war in Chechnya. A personal rift with then Defense Minister Pavel Grachev, Lebed's commander of many years, was deepening.

That conflict caused Lebed to resign in June 1994. Rejecting alliances with radical hard-liners and nationalists, he joined the Congress of Russian Communities, a centrist, nationalist group, and was elected to Parliament.

"Power is never given to anyone," Lebed said recently. "It is always being taken."