Chechnya rocks Yeltsin's rule in peril

War has lit a political brushfire, dividing the President's allies and alienating the military - even his public is losing faith
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The Independent Online
IF POLITICS makes strange bedfellows, then the Chechen war is achieving the Russian equivalent of putting the Pope in bed with Madonna.

One of the few liberal politicians to support Boris Yeltsin's intervention in Chechnya is Boris Fyodorov, the economic reformer who lost his job as finance minister after ultra-nationalists triumphed in last December's parliamentary elections. Lined up alongside him is none other than Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the extremist whose victory precipitated Mr Fyodorov's removal from office.

In a message to Russian soldiers last Thursday, Mr Zhirinovsky said: "The motherland has called on you at a difficult hour to fulfil your noble duty. A time of serious trial has come for Russia. Its territorial integrity is under threat. In addition to bandits, journalists and politicians are shooting you in the back."

President Yeltsin draws no satisfaction from the knowledge that Mr Zhirinovsky supports a Chechen crackdown. Even to have Mr Fyodorov and such men as his Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev, on his side offers little reassurance. The reality is that since his election as Russian president in June 1991, Mr Yeltsin has rarely, if ever, been as politically isolated as he is now. The Chechen campaign, three weeks old today, is threatening to send the President to an early political grave.

The Chechen operation has cost him the sympathy of most Russian liberals, who once formed a solid base of support. There has been a chorus of disapproval from the independent media, who have criticised the state's propaganda about the Chechen war and asked what on earth Mr Yeltsin is up to.

"On the day the operation began in Chechnya, it became clear that the whole mechanism of power in Russia had lost its ability to act properly," said Otto Latsis, a commentator for Izvestia.

Yegor Gaidar, a prominent reformer and formerly loyal ally, has condemned the crackdown. More moderate opposition figures, such as the economist Grigory Yavlinsky, have joined in describing it as a mistake, as have civilian advisers to Mr Yeltsin on matters ranging from nationalities policy and relations with parliament to human rights. At the same time, the Chechen war has divided and demoralised the armed forces. Officers under orders to fight in Chechnya have openly criticised military tactics and the underlying political strategy. Some find it abhorrent to use force against Chechens, who remain citizens of Russia, while others fear decades of brutal, messy warfare in the northern Caucasus.

General Boris Gromov, a deputy Defence Minister who commanded the Soviet retreat from Afghanistan, has attacked Russia's political leaders for placing their ambitions on the same level as soldiers' lives. Similar censure has come from General Alexander Lebed, the commander of the 14th Russian Army in Moldova. Such statements would appear to fall into the category of rank insubordination, but the generals are still in their jobs.

An equally bad sign for Mr Yeltsin is that opinion polls are registering little public support for the Chechen campaign. Most Russians have lost their appetite for imperial adventures. Few share Mr Yeltsin's view that Russia has a vital stake in restoring its rule in Chechnya. The Interfax news agency issued a poll last week that put the President's personal disapproval rating at 75 per cent, 5 per cent higher than last September.

One of Mr Yeltsin's greatest strengths in the late 1980s and early 1990s was his ability to appeal to the Russian public over the heads of his conservative opponents in the Communist Party and KGB. It was through victory in successive elections that he rose to supremacy in Russia, and it was by such dramatic gestures as standing on a tank and urging popular resistance that he helped defeat the hardline coup of August 1991.

A majority of Russian voters now are losing faith in him, a trend that can only encourage the President's enemies.

Like others before him, Mr Yeltsin has said in the past that Russians admire strong leaders who impose order and curb their nation's tendency to anarchy. But the political system that he introduced last December, after crushing an uprising at the Moscow parliament building with the loss of 147 lives, is turning into the worst of all worlds for Mr Yeltsin.

Lawless but allowing for the expression of public opinion, pluralistic but placing heavy burdens on the people, Mr Yeltsin's system has instilled in Russians neither the fear of autocracy nor the confidence of democracy. By establishing a powerful executive presidency, it has saddled Mr Yeltsin with responsibility for everything that happens in Russia, good and bad. Rising crime, continuing economic hardship and now the Chechen drama mean that most Russians think all is not well in the land. Under Mr Yeltsin's political order, there is only the President to blame.

Presidential elections are due in 1996, and Mr Yeltsin's room for manoeuvre before the vote is rapidly diminishing. Three options are available to him. First, he could seek to postpone the vote, or reduce the democratic element in Russia's constitution, in an attempt to reassert his personal control of the country. Such a course would undermine his already weakened credentials as a reformer and would probably require the suppression of political opposition across Russia, with no guarantee of ultimate success.

Second, he could choose the path of democracy and seek to reverse his unpopularity with voters in time to win the 1996 elections. This course would almost certainly mean calling an early halt to the Chechen war. Yet Mr Yeltsin has put his personal prestige on the line in Chechnya, and it may already be too late for him to retreat or compromise without severe damage to his reputation. In any event, he gave few hints in his television address last Tuesday, or in the renewed bombing of Grozny on Wednesday,that compromise was on his mind.

Lastly, he could continue much as at present, defying public opinion, ignoring the voices of liberal and military dissent, and hoping the Chechen war will evolve into something milder than the protracted guerrilla campaign against Russian military occupation that looks likely at the moment. Then he could either retire from politics before the presidential elections, thereby preserving his unique record as a Russian leader who never lost a popular vote, or he could campaign for a second term in office, knowing he lacks the broad support that gave him victory in 1991.

Whatever course he chooses, it will be a surprise to find Mr Yeltsin still occupying the presidency two years from now under the present political system. Paradoxically, for a man who shelled his parliament into submission a mere 15 months ago and who then crafted a new constitution to suit himself, his grip on power looked increasingly uncertain in 1994.

Like Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990 and 1991, Mr Yeltsin has allowed his liberal support to erode and flirted with conservatives in a bid to hold as much as possible of the centre ground of politics. Like Mr Gorbachev, he is discovering that in Russia the political centre is treacherous territory. For both men, it has seemed to involve running round in circles while public disapproval grows and a large black hole beckons from below.