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Lebed: Action man who nearly led Russia

Hugely popular despite not being blessed with classic good looks
Hugely popular despite not being blessed with classic good looks  

MOSCOW, Russia -- With his gravelly voice, trademark broken nose and tough-talking manner, Alexander Lebed was one of the most well-known public figures in Russia.

Such was the larger-than-life image of the former paratroop general killed in a helicopter crash on Sunday, he had been compared at home to both French emperor Napoleon and former Chilean dictator General Augusto Pinochet.

Indeed in 1996 when he came third in the Russian presidential election with 15 percent of the vote, many thought the stocky ex-boxer would succeed Boris Yeltsin as president as a compromise between the reformists and the communists.

Cigarette-holder clamped above craggy jaw, populist Lebed, 52, had been a rising star in a country coming to terms with the novelty of democracy and yearning for a strong man with ready answers.

CNN's Moscow Bureau Chief Jill Dougherty said the pugnacious, outspoken action man was hugely popular.

"Built like a bear and hands like a vice, he was gruff, outspoken and didn't kowtow to anyone," she said. "This came across on TV and really appealed to Russians."

Russian politician Lebed killed in crash 
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The blunt-speaking disciplinarian was seen as a patriot, she says. "He made it clear that democracy was not the most important thing to him -- the country was."

Lebed's fierce nationalism and military, frontier mentality approach showed his origins as a Cossack from the southern border city of Novocherkassk.

He was decorated form bravery in the Afghan war in 1981-82 though on a darker side helped put down civilian protests in Azerbaijan and Georgia in the final days of the Soviet Union.

It was his patriotic machismo and gruff speaking style which thrust Lebed to Russian public prominence after he led Russia's 14th Army in ending a brief but bloody conflict in formerly Soviet Moldova in the summer of 1992.

Harsh critic

From then he was to cultivate the anti-establishment, can-do image.

There were two major moments in Lebed's public life, Dougherty says. The first was in 1991 during the coup by hardliners when he was ordered to surround Yeltsin's "White House" headquarters with his troops. He refused.

The second was his successful brokering of a cease-fire in Chechnya, ending the 1994-96 war which had claimed many Russian lives.

A constant critic of corruption and incompetent leadership, he was forced to retire from the military in 1995 having, after a series of run-ins, offered his resignation to the Defence Minister once too often.

Instead he turned to politics -- sweeping to victory in a contest for a seat in the lower house of parliament, the Duma, as a candidate for the moderate nationalist Congress of Russian Communities party.

A year later he made his mark in the presidential election as a "third way" candidate and, in exchange for endorsement in the second round, Yeltsin named him head of the Presidential Security Council, where he served for a brief but typically action-packed four months.

Lebed, right, signs a peace treaty with Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov in Dagestan in 1996
Lebed, right, signs a peace treaty with Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov in Dagestan in 1996  

As secretary of the council, Lebed negotiated with the victorious rebels of Chechnya, being one of few Russian politicians pragmatic -- or shrewd -- enough to realise that fighting in the northern Caucasus must be brought to an end.

He signed a peace accord with rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov in August 1996.

But Lebed's abrasive style and reputation as a loose cannon brought him few friends in Yeltsin's inner circle. He was seen as a potential rival to Yeltsin who might lead Russia back to authoritarian rule.

Lebed, seeing power slip from ailing Yeltsin's hands, spurred a rift with him. An infuriated, wobbling Yeltsin, who was about to undergo open heart surgery, went before television cameras in October 1996 to sign a decree sacking the unruly general.

Lebed withdrew to stand in 1998 for governor in the Siberian area of Krasnoyarsk, Russia's second-biggest region, home to the Norilsk Nickel metals producer and a major aluminium smelter.

French actor Alain Delon, a friend of the Lebeds, flew to the bleak Siberian province to help the general win the poll.

Some saw the governorship as a springboard to a successful presidential bid at the 2000 election, but now-enemy Yeltsin's improvement in health and public anointing of Vladimir Putin as his chosen successor torpedoed any such ambitions.

He decided to stay in Krasnoyarsk.

Typically in Krasnoyarsk, Lebed ruffled many feathers, falling foul of local business barons who had helped him become governor but whom he later called "mafia." Lebed called in police investigators from Moscow to help stamp his authority.

Dougherty said it was unlikely Lebed could have succeeded in a presidential bid despite his public following. As a politician, he fell between two stools, she says.

"He didn't have enough support from either side, the reformists backing Yeltsin or the Communists who already had Gennady Zyuganov."

Married with three children, Lebed had a sharp sense of humour beneath his trademark scowl. Like his friend Delon, he was a bit of a matinee idol, too.

According to Reuters: "Although not blessed with classic good looks, millions of Russian women swooned over his boxer's nose and rumbling rhetoric."

-- CNN's Moscow Bureau Chief Jill Dougherty contributed to this report




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