Germany minces words over bloodshed

CHECHNYA QUAGMIRE: As the fighting in Grozny drags on and world leaders worry about how an `internal matter' will affect Yeltsin's future, the Russian masses turn against their former idol, leaving him to depend for support on ge nerals and securit y chiefs
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The Independent Online
The German Foreign Minister, Klaus Kinkel, yesterday pleaded that it was impossible to take a firm stance on Moscow's bloodshed in the breakaway republic of Chechnya. Echoing the language that Moscow liked to use when Leonid Brezhnev was still in power, Mr Kinkel said that the bombings and killings in Grozny were "an internal Russian matter".

He appeared to show understanding for Russia by saying that nobody could deny it the right to prevent parts of the federation "drifting away". Mr Kinkel said that the Russian action was out of proportion, but that there was little that the West could do in the present situation. According to Mr Kinkel, the only option for the West was to support the reform forces in Russia, and "influence Russia to protect the civilian population".

Bonn's refusal to condemn Moscow has been sharply attacked on both left and right in the media. The conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung argued yesterday: "The turning of Chechnya into a theatre of war is no longer a Russian internal affair. In Bonn, one ought to remember that - instead of talking of immediate aid for the same Russia which, according to this interpretation, is conducting a war inside its own borders."

The left-of-centre Frankfurter Rundschau agreedand the mass-circulation daily, Bild, said: "Yeltsin sinks in blood."

The opposition Social Democrats, who have until now remained almost tongue-tied, yesterday broke their silence. Gunter Verheugen, the party's chief strategist, said the government should, "together with our European partners, use its good relations with the Russian leadership, to end the misery of the war in Chechnya".

The politicians' virtual silence is part of a pattern. Germany's reluctance to criticise Boris Yeltsin mirrors the refusal in January 1991 to criticise the Moscow leadership, when Soviet tanks killed civilians in Lithuaniaas Mikhail Gorbachev was still seen in the West the only hope, to be supported at any cost. When Mr Yeltsin, who was already Russian president, criticised the Kremlin violence against the Balts, the West brushed him off as irrelevant, just as Mr Yeltsin's own critics are ignored by theWest, today.

Later in 1991, when the Serbian leader, Slobodan Milosevic, sought to save his own political skin by embarking on the wars in Yugoslavia, Germany took a very different line, and pressed hard for a tough response. London was sharply critical of German policy, insisting that a softly-softly approach was needed, to bring the war to a halt.

Now, however, Bonn is once more in line with "pragmatic" London, thus apparently failing to understand that the use of force has invariably backfired. One of the few places in Europe where people have had second thoughts about breaking away is Slovakia, where Prague emphasised that violence was not on the agenda, and where Czechs and Slovaks famously negotiated a "velvet divorce". Russia's actions have made a complete breakaway by Chechnya, and thus, the subsequent collapse of the Russian federation, more likely, not less.

Two of the most obvious potential flashpoints yet to come are the self-proclaimed independent Tatarstan, and the Crimea, which is disputed between Russia and Ukraine. Tatarstan would gain little from full independence, and would have much to lose. If Russian tanks go in, however, national pride and defiance seem certain to grow - and the violent breakup of the Russian federation, which might otherwise be prevented, will be irreversible.