Alexander Lebed likes to look people straight in the eye. His level gaze seems a little bored and ahead of the game. Ebullient, a little brusque but slickly coiffed and fit, the former general and Kremlin security chief is running for governor of a wealthy Siberian province. So if you have never heard of Krasnoyarsk, you will: It's the electoral stepping stone for his presidential ambitions.
An iconoclast by Russian standards, Lebed makes it plain that his platform is to work from the bottom up. "We used to have a perfect future, which we together called communism. Now the party of power has chosen a new label, and the future is still perfect," he said. "I am interested in earthly reform. Land reform to stimulate production, local tax collection. . . . If they are interested in the future, let them go there alone."The Russian people are his passion. In spite of everything they have undergone, people in Russia are intelligent and strong-willed, he argued. "It is not their fault that the country lost in a confrontation. It is the communist system, the communist ideology which wasted all of the efforts of these people and they do not see America, or the West as their enemy," he said.
Lebed's candor comes armed with an arsenal of colorful images and populist proverbs. Giving out specifics about deals to modernize the infrastructure of Krasnoyarsk would be like "dividing the hide of an unkilled bear." Speaking through an interpreter, he told Washington Post editors and reporters Wednesday: "As soon as I win, specific transactions will follow."
Lebed had few kind words to say about ailing Russian President Boris Yeltsin, referring to a series of embarrassing slips he made. The pres-i-dent is undergoing medical treatment and taking five or six vacations a year, he added. "He is not ruling," said Lebed, who was made security chief after backing Yeltsin in the last presidential election. Lebed described Yeltsin as "inadequate." He is "not governing, he is reigning, he is being a czar," Lebed charged, claiming that all the president does is sign decrees and edicts, which get carried out only in part.
In a country crawling with corruption, as a free-market economy emerges from the ravages of communism, Lebed said, the business community truly governs and the old formula holds: "Money is making power, and power is making money." Privatization was important, he said, but not without careful auditing and competition. "Big slices went to those who found themselves in the kitchen when the pie was being cut, small pieces to those standing in the corridor. . . . All the others got nothing," he continued. To hold an asset, one has to spend money, manage it, pay back, create jobs and pay salaries, taxes and generate welfare, he said, emphasizing, "Become an efficient owner." "No sticks, no tanks and no dictatorship" should be used to bring change, he added.
In the latest crisis with Iraq, Lebed said, "the United States stopped in good time and deprived itself of rather dubious pleasures of an American Chechnya the size of the Islamic nation, a big hole in the bottom of a big ship."
He sidestepped saying how he might reformulate policy on Iraq, since Russia has oil interests there. "Russia of course lost, because the war would have benefited it. Had a war started, world oil prices would not have dropped," he said. He prefers a "peaceful settlement," though. As someone who fought a lot, "I know for certain, the issues that can be settled through war are very few and far between."
Lebed said billions of dollars are needed to destroy 400,000 tons of toxic agents stored in rusting tanks in Russia, and there is no money to disassemble any of the Russian navy's 132 nuclear submarines with nuclear reactors that have not yet been dismantled. When another Chernobyl occurs, trillions will be needed to clean up the mess from something "that would put a fat cross on humanity," he said, adding that the only way reduce such threats is "to find the secret, put a ring through its nose and lead it." He likened big powers trying to hold on to weapons of mass destruction as a "suicide club."