Vienna, April 20 – General Aleksandr Lebed, who had he lived would have marked his 60th birthday today, sought to overcome the imperialist and hyper-centralized approach that survived the collapse of the Soviet Union, a personal mission that led to his marginalization but one that with all its contradictions he should be remembered, a Russian commentator says.
In an essay in “Russky zhurnal” today entitled “The General Against the Empire,” Vadim Shtepa argues that Lebed represented “an alternative course” for Russia’s development, one that would have permitted its development as a free and democratic state rather than an increasingly authoritarian one (www.russ.ru/pole/General-protiv-Imperii).
Like Washington, Ataturk and de Gaulle, “patriots who liberated their countries from the burdens of empire,” Lebed tried to do the same but faced an insurmountable problem: Post-Soviet Russia represented “not the rejection of empire but only a USSR reduced to the borders of the Russian Federation … with unqualified preservation of imperial hyper-centralism.”
Precisely that “prefigured the catastrophe of the ‘Lebed mission,’” Shtepa continues because the general “thought and acted already according to post-imperial categories, [while] the ‘legal successor of the USSR’ in fact turned out to be its ‘continuation,’” with its elite split between supporters of “liberal monetarism” and those who wanted things to remain unchanged.
Almost alone of the post-Soviet Russian leaders, Lebed viewed the future of his country in terms of the free development of regions and the elimination of their provincialism – in short, the pattern of political, social and economic modernization that has been taking place in contemporary Europe.
In 1996, it appeared briefly that Lebed had a chance to challenge Yeltsin in a serious way, but the personal ambitions of some of his allies, including Grigory Yavlinsky and the late Svyatoslav Fedorov, who also like Lebed died in a plane crash, prevented him from realizing it and cost Russia enormously.
Just how much is shown by the Khasavyurt Accords by which Lebed ended the first post-Soviet Chechen war and which Boris Yeltsin subsequently ignored in the name of maintaining his democratic “face” and that Vladimir Putin trampled upon to restart the war and create the disasters that have followed.
“You don’t want to agree with a secular General Maskhadov?” Shtepa suggests. “Well then, you get the Islamist extremists now,” something Lebed understood when he commented to a French newspaper about the way in which Putin resumed the war in an article entitled “Surgeons and Butchers.”
At that time, Lebed had already become governor of Krasnoyarsk kray, a position in which he nonetheless continued to play a national role. In many respects, Shtepa says, Lebed was “the first Russian regionalist,” although that term is seldom defined adequately by Russian commentators.
Regionalism, as Shtepa points out, drawing on European models, “strives not to any ‘separation’ as a goal in itself to this or that set of regions but to their democratic self-administration and direct, ‘horizontal’ connections.” Such an approach of course inevitably conflicts with that of most people in Moscow.
As an indication of Lebed’s understanding of this, Shtepa cites several of his comments. Among them, three stand out. First, Lebed insisted that “Moscow today is far from all of Russia. And Russia is not Moscow,” even if the center has concentrated “80 percent of the banking capital of the country” and “30 percent of the budget.”
Second, Lebed noted that “In a country of the size of Russia, administration from a single center …is impossible. One obtains the dinosaur syndrome, when signals from the head to the tail come only with great delay.” The center should do certain things that only it can do, Lebed continued, but it should leave the rest to the regions and localities.
And third, Lebed regularly pointed out that “”the bureaucrats in Russia now number twice as many as they did in the USSR, even though the country’s population is only half as great,” a comment that never endeared him to the members of this category or it supporters across the political spectrum.
Indeed, what is especially instructive is that Lebed was opposed not just by those who styled themselves the party of power but also by supposed “liberals” like Gaidar who apparently believed that only the strongest of central governments could do anything to move Russia forward.
Even though Lebed ultimately decided not to run for president in 2000, in 1998, he created the Lebed Youth Movement, a group that was so different from the youth movements other Russian politicians have created that it is worth paying attention to, Shtepa says, even though it did not bring him to power.
Speaking at its constituent congress, Lebed said that the older generation had “done its thing. Now, the new generation must take charge and define “the future of the country.” To do so, he told the delegates, “you must learn to say without any equivocation, ‘I decided,’ not in the way of totalitarianism of dictatorship but rather as a symbol of responsibility.”
“I decided, I am responsible for everything,” Lebed told them they must make as the basis of their actions. “The kernel of the future must be laid down by people who think freely, who are strong and capable, who have their own goals and are prepared to take moral responsibility before the country.”