Is This Face The Of Russia's Future? Alexander Lebed has been a boxer, a soldier, and a governor. Now he wants to be President. Would that be good for Russia?
By Anthony Paul

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Birch trees reach like stalagmites toward a snow-laden sky. A large man poses beside a combine harvester. Press photographers scramble in search of the right angle. A Fox News camera crew improvises a standup.

Soon the center of attention strides to his car, his charisma turned up purposefully a notch or two. State troopers jostle their vehicles into escort positions, and off dashes our convoy to new photo ops. Throughout a hectic working weekend the man will confer with farmers, factory managers, and workers; joke with their wives; huddle over late-night drinks with political aides. He will even endure the ministrations of a makeup lady brandishing a hot-pink powder puff.

If this sounds like New Hampshire in a presidential election year, it isn't. Try Siberia--the province of Krasnoyarsk, to be exact. And the politician is Alexander Ivanovich Lebed. Currently the governor of Krasnoyarsk, Lebed, 48, has his eyes set on Moscow. Though he has not yet declared his candidacy formally--nor has anyone else--the ex-general with the broken face clearly sees himself as a man of destiny: Russia's next President.

If Boris Yeltsin were to retire prematurely or die, a prospect that looks increasingly likely, an election would take place within three months. Otherwise his term ends in June 2000. At the moment Lebed and Yuri Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow (see box), are the clear front-runners to succeed Yeltsin, with Lebed perhaps slightly ahead. Says Benjamin Lambeth, author of a U.S. Air Force-sponsored RAND study of the Lebed phenomenon: "He stands as an almost classic prototype of the newly emerging breed of proud but disciplined Russian nationalist."

Who exactly is Alexander Lebed? A first encounter with him can lack a certain jollity. He shakes with a hand as large as most boxing gloves. His stare at a new visitor in his Moscow office would do credit to a Mike Tyson determined to psych-out an opponent. Sporting a nose altered by a fence paling during a teenage street fight, Lebed has the appearance--and often the manner--of the champion pugilist he once was.

In other countries all this might be a drawback. Not in Russia. A good man need be "only slightly better looking than an ape," Lebed says, employing a wry expression often used by Russian women. And then there's his voice. The sound begins in a barrel chest, growls across vocal cords weathered by nicotine in industrial quantities, and reaches his listener like an angry battalion marching on thick gravel. "In truth," Irina, FORTUNE's interpreter in Krasnoyarsk, solemnly allows, "women voters find this voice appealing."

A central-casting vision of a Tolstoyan warlord is entirely appropriate, many Russians seem to believe, for a man who must deal with their growing legions of demons. As governor of Krasnoyarsk, Lebed is getting useful practice for the role. The size and potential of this province, a thousand miles away from the edge of European Russia, are powerful reminders that the Russian eagle, symbol of the czars and now the presidency, has two heads--one facing the Atlantic Ocean, the other the Pacific. The region also reminds us of Russia's vastness: Krasnoyarsk is nearly one-quarter the size of the U.S. but has Singapore's population, just 3.1 million. And finally, it reminds us of Russia's wasted potential. Under a stable, productive system, Krasnoyarsk's economy could be breathtaking. After all, it is home to some 80% of Russia's known natural resources--oil, gas, coal, hydro, timber, gold, and iron ore. But like Russia as a whole, it has not been able to translate its human and material riches into anything like wealth. It is, in short, an unholy mess.

Right after the currency deluge in August, a natural one visited the region. Two full months of rain hit Krasnoyarsk's key agricultural areas. Then heavy snow fell before the harvest could be completed. "In my 48 years of farming here, I've never seen a worse season," says Alexander Molchun of the Aban Agricultural Joint-Stock Co., a privatized Soviet collective near Krasnoyarsk City. "We've lost more than 20% of all grain crops." The trans-Siberian railroad, the heart of the provinces' transport network, has also hit hard times. In some sections Siberian miners have protested unpaid salaries by holding trains hostage. And the once-huge Krasnoyarsk Tire Plant is in trouble, too, with workers forced to accept their wages in tires. They line the road outside the plant, trying to get themselves into the cash economy by peddling their "salaries" to passing motorists.

What can a new governor do to alleviate such distress? And what do his actions foreshadow about any Lebed presidency? A gubernatorial term that is all of five months old is obviously not a precise measure of what a President Lebed might be like. But enough has happened to hint at some of the answers.

As the ruble began collapsing in August, Krasnoyarsk's inflation took off. In an effort to contain this, Lebed's first major step was to curb some newly emergent capitalists. In the face of widespread hoarding and profiteering, he decreed that price increases for staple foods and coal be held to a maximum of 10%. The price controls proved unenforceable, but observers concede that the warning helped restrain would-be profiteers.

As President, might he impose on the nation something like Krasnoyarsk's 10%-maximum profits? Not necessarily, he says, insisting that this action was "an exception" designed to protect capitalists from hungry rioters: "It is better to lose a part than to lose everything, along with your head."

When it comes to reviving an economy, Lebed might be considered a big dreamer. Consider his plan to make Siberia a hub for international air traffic. The province sits astride air routes across the North Pole to and from Southeast Asia and the east-west routes from Japan and China to Western Europe and back. An airliner using them may cut, for example, some 3 1/2 hours off the 15-hour New York-Singapore great circle route currently in use. A New York-New Delhi polar flight would be eight hours shorter. Advantages are obvious: Russia could annually earn as much as $100 million in overflight fees, Lebed estimates, and airlines would slash operating costs. In hopes of stimulating North American interest in the route, Lebed flew across the pole to North America in July. In Washington in September, he hand-delivered to President Clinton a formal request for the route's opening.

Urged on by KrasAir and Sibaviatrans, two closely held, soon-to-be-merged, locally based airlines, the province plans to pull together two adjacent airfields already serving Krasnoyarsk City. The failing economy has reduced KrasAir's passenger traffic by 30% since August, but KrasAir director general Boris M. Abramovitch remains confident about prospects. Abramovitch said that the governor--"a man who knows what must be done for business to succeed"--would go again to North America in December to promote the route. Adds the director: "The Krasnoyarsk air superhub will rival, say, Singapore's Changi or Hong Kong's new Chek Lap Kok in its contribution to 21st-century air services." Lots of luck. Given Russia's economic straits, the project could easily be grounded through lack of cash.

Regarding how he would restore the Russian economy as a whole, Lebed is elliptical, preaching an "ideology of common sense." Common sense, to be sure, has been in short supply in Russian economic policy, but is it enough of a response to the country's parlous state? Most public servants have not received their salaries for months. Many essential services are fitful or simply suspended. Perhaps half the economy is now barter, and a significant proportion is criminal. Even the Finance Ministry, when its pathetic tax collection procedures are actually functioning, is forced to accept goods as payment in lieu of money.

Meantime, a cabinet staffed with many Soviet-era retreads struggles to steer Russia out of the morass. A recent paper by the Brookings Institution's Clifford Gaddy and Pennsylvania State University's Barry Ickes questions whether any recovery is possible while Russia maintains "the pretense that the economy is much larger than it really is." The authors charge that because the transition to a true market economy has failed, Russia has only a "virtual economy" based on "an illusion about almost every important parameter: prices, sales, wages, taxes and budgets." Warn Gaddy and Ickes: Any bailout from the West "will merely postpone the day of reckoning. When that day comes, the economic consequences and political backlash will be even worse."

In his instinctive way, Lebed agrees with this analysis. He takes a stern, up-by-our-own bootstraps attitude to the economic crisis. Russians will have to rebuild their lives with their own efforts, his autobiography bluntly tells Russians. "The idea that the West will pour its money into Russia is pure fantasy," he says. "Serious investments only go to countries where the economic, political, and legal situation is secure, and the risk minimal. We are not yet such a country." On a recent weekend visit to stricken agricultural areas, the governor's remarks to grim-faced but seemingly pro-Lebed farmers were very close to those of a general's address to outnumbered troops: "We are on our own. It will be a grim winter, but do your best. And may God be with you!"

Politically, too, he believes Russia will have to find its own path, in its own way, and in its own time. He makes no apologies for stating that a democratic Russia is a distant prospect. "All countries that claim to be democratic have built it [democracy] up over some 200 years," he told FORTUNE. "My sincere conviction is that establishing the basis of democracy is only possible over a minimum two generations, say 40 years. It is for our generation, the generation of 50-year-olds, to put down the stones in Russia, to build democracy's foundations." Cynical Russians, most of them these days, wonder what that means: "Russia's future will be the Italian solution," according to one dark joke, "either Sicily or Mussolini."

Lebed would clearly like to make the trains run on time but won't say how he can make that happen. A man more of attitudes than of policies, he is uncomfortable with abstractions. Asked to describe his political outlook, he muses, his voice a gravel quarry suffering an earthquake: "I was amused to learn that in Switzerland many people don't know the name of their President. In any country most people are far more interested in the payment of their salary, the creation of a nice apartment, than in politicians. The main use of political power is to create such a situation--a life so orderly and fulfilling that politicians become less important."

A former paratrooper who admits to a deep distaste for politicians generally, Lebed was born in 1950 in Novocherkassk, near the Ukrainian border southeast of Moscow. He claims descent from Cossacks, the czars' often brutal peasant cavalry. From his earliest years he was aware of the Soviet Union's harsh political order: His father spent five years in one of Stalin's labor camps for twice being late to work--by five minutes. At age 12, Lebed saw KGB troops sent by then-President Nikita Khrushchev gun down rioting workers.

Lebed began attracting national notice when he was a general commanding paratroops in Georgia in the late 1980s and later in Azerbaijan. Publicly savage about Moscow's leadership at this troubled time, his near insubordination at once endeared him to many disenchanted Russians and hastened his retirement from the army. In 1995, Lebed allied himself with the Congress of Russian Communities, a new political group that drew much of its support from Russians who felt threatened by the rise of ethnic nationalism. In his political coming-out speech, he warned sternly that "in all our debates on the rights of man, on democracy, on reforms, we have lost the Russian man."

Lebed's forthright nationalism and his tough image carried him into third place in the 1996 presidential race, with 11 million votes. Yeltsin won reelection in a run-off against Communist Party chief Gennady Zyuganov. Lebed supported Yeltsin in the runoff, albeit grudgingly, and was rewarded with an appointment as national security chief. Lebed spent his brief time in public office negotiating a settlement to the uprising by ethnic Chechens against Russian rule in Chechnya. His success in extricating Russia from that fiasco made him the country's most popular politician but poisoned his relations with the Kremlin leadership. (He was later to describe the Chechnya campaign as "senseless, bloody butchery...a cynical game of money, power, and pipelines in the exclusive Kremlin casino.")

Sacked without notice in October 1996 amid absurd charges of equipping a 50,000-man private army for a coup, Lebed seemed unperturbed by his sudden descent into unemployment. "I was never proud of being a bureaucrat," he told reporters. Describing himself as a "white crow in the government flock," he suggested he was an honest man lost among a den of thieves, an image he still projects.

Lebed decided to remain in politics but to get out of Moscow, challenging Krasnoyarsk's incumbent governor, Valery Zubov, in elections last May. His earthy populism touched a chord, and he won in a landslide.

As he looks ahead to the next election, Lebed has a couple of assets. His major competition, Yuri Luzhkov, suffers from the widespread perception that he unfairly benefited from business deals made in the early 1990s. Moreover, apparatchiks beholden to Luzhkov control a massively corrupt licensing and taxing process, which Russians have taken to calling (with ethnic imprecision) the Mafia. And Luzhkov's insouciance can be irritating. Izvestia gave this as Luzhkov's response to a reporter's request for the mayor's plans for handling Muscovites' growing food shortages: "I will eat less."

Lebed is openly scornful of Luzhkov, ridiculing the construction in Moscow of a statue of Peter the Great so huge that it has to carry warning lights for low-flying aircraft. Czar Peter is known as the 18th-century founder of modern Russia--but also as a man who loathed Moscow and executed thousands of its citizens. Lebed's comment: "It's like raising a statue to Hitler in Warsaw." But Luzhkov has real strengths as well. Compared to many other municipalities, Moscow is reckoned to be well run, and he has widespread support from the trade unions. And Lebed has no nationwide political organization to speak of.

Some of Lebed's political enemies--and Luzhkov's allies--have charged that the mixture of nationalism and authoritarianism he seems to espouse comes very close to fascism. Luzhkov calls him "dangerous." Any comment? Says Lebed: "When a caravan moves past, dogs bark at it. All sorts of things are published about me--that I'm a freemason, that I'm a fascist, that I torture babies. Why should I comment on this garbage?" But if he is forthright about what he is not--not communist, not fascist--Lebed is unable to articulate what he is. On the key issues facing Krasnoyarsk--crime, wage arrears, and providing heat for the coming winter--he is shy on specifics.

He is fearless in asserting that he favors the rule of law and equity, and that he opposes tyranny and extremism--positions of no political risk. But asked to define more closely "the ideology of common sense," a term he uses frequently, Lebed responds: "It's the creation of a system in which people coexist comfortably and naturally with laws. At the moment that is not the situation in our country. There are a lot of laws that don't correspond to the demands and needs of the people."

That isn't the most explicit statement of a political philosophy. But the remarks may also have come from a veteran soldier who, for tactical reasons, wants to keep the target unclear. He is leaving his options open for another day. No matter what he may think about crafty politicians, he has already become one.