Boris Yeltsin’s recent electoral triumph over his Communist riyal was hailed throughout the West as a victory for democracy and reassuring evidence that Russia will continue on the path of progress and peace. In Washington, London, Paris, Bonn, the leaders of the United Nations of the Free World breathed a sigh of relief. Absent from the congratulations were the by now traditional warnings against the upsurge in Russian nationalism represented by such sinister figures as Gennady Zyuganov, Vladimir Zhirinovsky, and General Alexandr Lebed. Of course, now that Lebed has joined Yeltsin’s team, even the nationalist bear has been stuffed back into his cage. Or has he?
American news commentators, in the second stage of the Russian presidential campaign, began to grow uneasy with Lebed’s denunciations of foreign cults (including Mormonism) but grudgingly decided to set down these gaffes to campaign rhetoric. But if xenophobia wins votes in Russia, then serious or not, Lebed may be preparing some surprises for tire Free World. When I met Lebed back in January (along with the directors of the Lord Byron Foundation), he gave no indication of either xenophobia or political cynicism. In fact, despite his obvious sense of humor, Alexandr Lebed is a deadly serious man who believes that the United States and Germany, along with their puppet regimes in Britain and France, are busily encircling the remnant of the Russian empire they have already succeeded in dismembering. The object is to reduce Russia from a second-rate power to an inconsequential piece of geography that can be exploited at will by German and American businessmen and their governments.
Lebed’s suspicions, shared by a great many serious-minded Russians, are the signs not of paranoia but of political realism. In the Balkans and in the Middle East, the United States has already used its military muscle to crush Russian allies and diminish Russian influence. On the western flank, the Germans are once again making noises about the Sudetenland, and German business interests are taking over the former European provinces of the Russian empire. A child could see what we are up to, and General Lebed is no child: he may turn out to be, along with Chancellor Kohl, the most hardheaded statesman of this decade, and the sick and aging Boris Yeltsin is no match for him, either in will or intellect.
Viewed in the abstract, Yeltsin’s decision to make Lebed his deputy looks like political suicide. Here is an alcoholic heart patient, almost universally despised by his own people, with only two cards to play—his incumbency and the fear of communism—and he gives sweeping power over the military and the police to a vigorous tee-totaller. who is loved by the soldiers and grudgingly respected by people who object to his political views. But Yeltsin is no political novice, and he did not survive either in the old system or in the new by misjudging the character of his rivals. He knows the risks far better than we do, and if he is willing to take them, he has a good reason. Some time before the elections, he announced that he had already picked his successor. Amidst the usual speculation, Alexandr Lebed declared that Yeltsin could only have meant him. At the time it seemed like a joke, but no longer.
If Lebed is Yeltsin’s handpicked successor, then he need have no fear that the general will murder his boss on the way to the top. It also means that Yeltsin has finally made up his mind to do what I have been predicting he would do since the day he came to power: play to the right, turn away from the West, and reassert Russian military and political influence. Boris Yeltsin’s political victory may well turn out to be a turning-point, but not in the sense in which it is being greeted in the provinces of the American empire. It may just signify that the long Russian retreat has begun to slow to a halt and that we may see the reemergence of a Russia that can look after its own interest without the kindly assistance of the United States. It may also spell the end of the American power monopoly in Europe.
In the long run, a multipolar Europe, in which Germany, Russia, and the United States are competing for influence, will prove to be a far healthier situation, not just for Russia or Europe as a whole, but for the United States, which has neither the national will nor the competent leadership required for the management of global empire. Unlike Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, Alexandr Lebed is no friend (that is, client) of the United States. As a Russian patriot, he has his own people’s interest at heart, and even if a resurgent Russia should go back to rattling sabres and threatening our satrapies, his rise to power, if we can learn to mind our own business, should represent no threat to the United States.