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By Yelena Smirnova

Russian Soldier-Politician Lebed Dies in Air Crash

Reuters , April 28, 2002

Alexander Lebed MOSCOW - Russia's lower house of parliament launched debate Wednesday on a law strengthening the constitutional provision of alternative service with guarantees that would remove NOVOSIBIRSK, Russia (Reuters) - Alexander Lebed, a tough-talking general who played a key role in foiling the 1991 coup against Mikhail Gorbachev and ran for president against Boris Yeltsin five years later, died Sunday in a helicopter crash.

Lebed's last job was governor of the huge Siberian Krasnoyarsk region, where the 52-year-old Afghan war veteran had ruffled many feathers -- prompting suggestions his death might not have been an accident.

"There was some fog," Alexander Lychkovsky, head of Lebed's regional security council, said on television. "The helicopter hit a high-voltage line and crashed."

An Emergencies Ministry officer said there were 19 people on board. Seven, including Lebed, died while the rest were in hospital with broken spines, bones and ruptured organs.

The helicopter was carrying Krasnoyarsk administration officials and local journalists to the inauguration ceremony of a new ski area in the south of the territory.

Alexei Volin, a government spokesman, told Ekho Moskvy radio President Vladimir Putin had ordered senior officials to probe the crash. He said it would be a "painstaking" investigation but refused to speculate about possible causes.

Earlier, senior parliamentary deputy Alexei Arbatov said he would not dismiss sabotage as the cause, saying Lebed had made powerful enemies during his stint as governor of the mineral-rich area.

Politicians regretted his death, saying that despite the controversy he usually spurred, it was a big loss for Russia. In a message of condolences to Lebed's family, Putin called him "a true Soldier who dedicated his life to serving the Fatherland."


A pugnacious paratroop commander with a gravel voice and blunt style, Lebed shot to prominence in 1991 when his troops helped Yeltsin, president of the Russian republic that was then part of the Soviet Union, foil a KGB-backed coup against Kremlin leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

After the demise of the Soviet Union Lebed, a Cossack from the southern city of Novocherkassk, grabbed the headlines as he led Russia's 14th Army in ending a bloody conflict in ex-Soviet Moldova in summer 1992.

Quitting the armed forces in 1995, he entered parliament and ran against Yeltsin in the 1996 presidential election, promising to end corruption in the post-Soviet economy.

He finished third, threw his support behind Yeltsin to defeat Communist challenger Gennady Zyuganov and took on a senior role in the Kremlin Security Council.

From his new Kremlin position Lebed negotiated a peace deal with Chechen rebels, which led to Moscow's withdrawal from the separatist territory. Putin, who sent troops back into Chechnya in 1999, later called the agreement a betrayal of Russia.

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


Lebed's presidential aspirations took a terminal hit when Yeltsin successfully recovered from his operation and eventually paved the way for Putin to take over the Kremlin.

After falling out with Yeltsin, Lebed retreated to regional politics and in 1998 won the governorship of Krasnoyarsk, a vast region housing huge nickel and aluminum smelters.

In Krasnoyarsk, Lebed quickly fell foul of business barons who had backed his campaign. He branded them "mafia" and called in interior ministry generals to help stamp his authority.

Arbatov said Lebed's passing was likely to upset a shaky regional political balance which hinged on the charismatic governor's popularity.

"Passions will be boiling and big money will come into play," Arbatov told Ekho Moskvy radio.

As a politician, Lebed was not afraid to condemn the communist system whose persecutions sent his father and grandfather to early graves, or the post-Soviet corruption and drift he saw under Yeltsin.

Cigarette-holder clamped above craggy jaw, he was a hit in a country ill at ease with the novelty of democracy and yearning for a strong man with ready answers.

Married with three children, Lebed had a sharp sense of humor beneath his trademark scowl and, though hardly blessed with classic good looks, millions of Russian women swooned over his boxer's nose and rumbling rhetoric.

Associated Press, April 17, 2002

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