Sacked by a livid Boris N. Yeltsin amid charges he was plotting a coup, former national security chief Alexander I. Lebed wasted no time Thursday serving his own gruff notice: He will be out to campaign for the ailing president's job.
Instead of solving a nagging problem by firing Lebed, Yeltsin soon may find he has just unleashed his greatest rival.
Lebed's dismissal will likely boost his standing in the eyes of millions of Russians fed up with Yeltsin and his government's incompetence and corruption, analysts agreed.
Lebed was ousted Thursday amid charges from Kremlin rivals that the ex-general wanted to seize power or incite a military mutiny. But Lebed denied the coup allegations and insisted he wants to win the presidency with ballots, not bullets.
Pegged by many as Yeltsin's likely successor, Lebed was characteristically unbowed after his ouster.
He announced plans to start campaigning to replace Yeltsin, who many suspect is too ill to serve out the rest of a term that lasts until 2000.
He said he would not launch his campaign while the president is alive.
"Today he's an elderly and ill person," Lebed said. "It's not for me to kick the one who is down."
There was concern that Lebed's departure would rekindle the 20-month war in Chechnya. Lebed's rivals in the Kremlin favor tough military action to end the secession campaign by Chechen rebels.
"I'm going to do everything in my power not to let the war in Chechnya flare up," Lebed said after his dismissal.
There was some question whether Lebed had retained his post as special envoy to Chechnya. A presidential spokesman said Lebed had only been fired as security chief, but it is normal for officials who had been removed to give up all their posts.
Lebed gave up his seat in the State Duma, parliament's lower house, to take the Kremlin job. The seat has not been filled, and Deputy Speaker Mikhail Gutsiriyev said Thursday that Lebed could reclaim it.
Scowling, moving stiffly but speaking clearly and more resolutely than
he has in recent appearances, Yeltsin, in a nationally televised address, declared that Lebed's unilateral actions, excessive ambition and outspokenness were damaging to the country.
With hands clenched into fists on the table in front of him and eyes narrowed, the president looked angrier than he has in years and healthier and more in command than he has in weeks.
"I can't tolerate the situation any more," Yeltsin said, slowly and deliberately signing a decree dismissing Lebed. He spoke at the health spa where he has been resting up for heart bypass surgery next month.
Lebed's sacking sent shock waves through the Russian establishment. A charismatic soldier-turned-politician whose gruff honesty won him 11 million votes in presidential elections this summer before he joined Yeltsin's team, Lebed is now on the loose again with no ties of loyalty binding him to Yeltsin, his one-time mentor.
With much of the 1 million-member Russian army loyal to Lebed and angry at the government's failure to pay their wages for three months, and with discontent growing all over the public sector over the lack of back pay, Yeltsin's abrupt action has set the scene for an autumn of upheaval.
"Just how hot the autumn will be will depend on how smart the government is," Lebed said. "Everyone is fed up with fairy tales. You have to pay the bills. . . . The army is in a sorry state. The economy is in a sorry state. The ecology is in a sorry state. Energy is in a sorry state. I have the impression that, if something gives way, everything will be sucked into this vortex."
Lebed's ouster appears to have been orchestrated in part by Yeltsin's powerful chief of staff, Anatoly Chubais, who was irked by Lebed's power plays, and by Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin, who shadow-boxed with him over control of economic policy.
While Yeltsin had surrounded himself in the past with competing political forces, he has gradually ousted the Kremlin hard-liners who were known as the "Party of War" because of their rigid stance on Chechnya, leaving the presidential administrative apparatus in the hands of Chubais, who virtually controls all official access to Yeltsin.
Seeking to avoid inflaming Moscow's unstable political scene, U.S. officials kept public comment on Thursday's developments to a minimum.
They said it was an internal affair and Yeltsin acted "in accordance with his constitutional prerogatives." The State Department said that the Russian government was stable. But privately there was deep concern.
One analyst told Reuters Lebed's sacking could be "a nightmare" for the administration because further instability in Russia could provide Republican rivals with ammunition to attack President Clinton.