Can Mr Yeltsin stop Russia tearing itself apart?

FOR MUCH of his life - if his autobiographies are to believed - Boris Yeltsin has been an insomniac who spends the small hours of the night fretting about the fate of his huge and increasingly anarchic nation. But never before has he had better cause to lose sleep.

A wave of terror has claimed close to 300 lives in Russia in a matter of days, and there appears to be precious little that he or anyone else can do about it. The latest bomb, which killed at least 17 people in Volgodonsk on Thursday, only served to deepen Russia's misery as it serves notice that the terrorists have widened their targets from Moscow - scene of two terrible apartment bombings - to the even more vulnerable expanse of the Russian provinces.

The federal security services, the FSB, has vowed to crack down on security, and an army of vigilantes - from yard sweepers to the nosy-parker matrons who patrol the floors of every Soviet-era hotel - has been mobilised. But even the world's most modern and best-equipped security forces struggle against this brand of domestic terrorism, and the Russians these days are far from either.

This kind of domestic terror campaign is every leader's nightmare, and comes in the twilight of Mr Yeltsin's rule when he is already engulfed by a corruption scandal involving his own family as well as the larger issue of who will take over the reins of power when - and if - presidential elections are held next year. As this strange drama plays out, the rest of the world is watching with a mixture of bemusement, indifference and woolly despair that seems to characterise its attitude to Russia as she steadily slumps lower down the international pecking order.

What happens next? In his ideal world, Boris Yeltsin would doubtless want to try to bomb his tormentors and their supporters into submission. Nothing is certain, but the evidence suggests that these are an element of the Islamic fundamentalists with whom Russian forces have been doing battle in Dagestan's mountains.

Certainly, some of Russia's generals, who still thrill to the memory of their land grab at Pristina airport in Kosovo, will now be itching to use unbridled force to exact their revenge. But it cannot work, and the rest of the world must hope that the president, for all his befuddlement, knows that.

The Chechen war, the worst mistake of Mr Yeltsin's presidency, stands as terrible evidence of the hopelessness of this tactic. The use of brute force - in which the city of Grozny was more or less flattened - served to convert many Chechens, who had until then been ambivalent about Russian rule, into passionate nationalists. Tens of thousands of people died while Russia suffered a defeat at the hands of a small and local army, destroying the last vestige of morale within the once mighty military. Boris Yeltsin is famously erratic and - in his worst moments - an utter liability to his nation. But the odds are that he won't want to go down that particular road again.

His other options are scarcely more attractive. Russians have a shockingly high tolerance threshold, partly because of the country's size and corpse- strewn history, but also because they are simply too bound up with the struggle for personal survival to worry for long about anyone else's suffering. But surely even this hardened society cannot go on seeing men, women and children blown to bits as they sleep in their beds. To that should be added the misery of life with even more document checks and official meddling than usual. Mr Yeltsin may, therefore, eventually feel compelled by public outrage to swallow his anger and pride and seek to negotiate with his enemies, albeit in secret.

Even then, he has limited room for manoeuvre. Dagestan is not Chechnya, where - at least once the Russian bombs began raining down - the majority of the republic's population rallied beneath the banner of independence. There is precious little evidence that the Wahhabi Islamic fundamentalists and Chechen militants calling for a unified Islamic state in the north Caucasus represent the aspirations of the majority in Dagestan.

The southern republic, artificially created by Stalin, is a hotchpotch of more than 30 ethnic groups who are as secular as they are devout and who have yet to show much interest in a jihad. The place is awash with clan rivalries and warring mafias who often dislike one another even more than their overlords in Moscow. A Russian pull-out would be a recipe for a civil war - in a patch of the Russian Federation which the Kremlin happens to value rather more than most as it has access to the mineral-rich Caspian Sea and sits astride an important oil route.

There are echoes in Russia today of late 1995 when rumours swirled around Moscow that Boris Yeltsin would use the Chechen war, then at its height, as a pretext to cancel the looming parliamentary and presidential elections. Similar reports circulate today, coupled with speculation that Mr Yeltsin will take early retirement.

Who knows, perhaps these are right. But my guess is that he will do neither. Stepping down before the battle is over is against the nature of this pugilistic, power-loving man, no matter how infirm he is.

He also cares about history's judgement. He knows that his record is horribly marred not only by war and poverty, but a corruption epidemic that has infected the entire country, even - it seems - the very core of the Kremlin. By going ahead with elections despite the terrorists, he may be able to claw back a shred of lost credibility in the eyes of the world. That is probably his only hope.

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