Russians lose all faith in Yeltsin Chechnya debacle unites poets and parents, reformers and reactionaries in conde mnation of President

The human rights commissioner said Kremlin propaganda outdid Goebbels Fear of the state's security apparatus has gone from people's hearts
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PERHAPS IT loses something in translation, but this is what Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the doyen of Russian poets, had to say last week about Russia's military adventure in Chechnya: "Where have we flown to, two-headed eagle?/With such infamous glory, i nto the Chechen blizzards."

He read out his verse on Russian television during a programme in which he also disclosed that he was refusing to accept a state award, the Order of the Friendship of Peoples, on account of the behaviour of Russia's armed forces in Chechnya. "It was simply morally impossible to receive any award, but especially an award called `Friendship of Peoples'," he said.

It seemed at times last week that Russians from all walks of life were queuing up to denounce their rulers' bombing and shelling of Chechnya. There was Sergei Kovalyov, a dissident in Soviet times and now Russia's human rights commissioner, who said the Kremlin's information bulletins on the Chechen war outdid Goebbels' propaganda in their falsity.

There was Grigory Yavlinsky, a liberal economist and former ally of President Boris Yeltsin, who said it was time for the President to resign. "It is self-evident that neither Boris Yeltsin nor his ministers in brass hats can settle the conflict. They should step down for the sake of our country," he said.

In the Pacific coast city of Vladivostok, a researcher called Boris Dyachenko challenged Mr Yeltsin to a duel for causing "indelible disgrace to Russia". Meanwhile, Ilya Kolerov, the president of Moscow's largest petrol station business, called on private Russian entrepreneurs to withhold taxes from the government in protest at the Chechen war.

There were even voices of dissent from within Mr Yeltsin's administration. General Boris Gromov, a deputy defence minister who commanded the retreat from Afghanistan, condemned his own superior, Defence Minister Pavel Grachev, for killing civilians in Grozny, the Chechen capital. Sergei Shakhrai, the man appointed to a new government information job to win public opinion over to Mr Yeltsin's side, commented baldly that the Chechen war showed that Russia's army was completely ineffective.

Russian newspapers gave vent to even stronger feelings. "Russia entered 1995 knee-deep in blood," said Komsomolskaya Pravda, formerly the paper for the Soviet Communist Youth League, now a strident critic of Mr Yeltsin's policy in the northern Caucasus.

The chorus of disapproval for the military operation in Chechnya was so loud that it seemed inconceivable that Mr Yeltsin could ignore it. Indeed, on Wednesday evening he announced an end to air strikes on Grozny - though the armed forces appear not to have obeyed that command - and on Friday morning he said the Security Council, a body grouping Russia's 12 most powerful leaders, must set a date for ending military operations.

For all his attempts to claw back his reputation, Mr Yeltsin finished the week in worse political shape than ever. His senior advisers predicted on Wednesday that Grozny would be in Russian hands by the next day, an empty claim that buried the last shredof credibility of official statements.

The bodies of teenage Russian soldiers began to return home in zinc coffins, provoking anguished denunciations of the President from parents' associations. Opinion polls showed that two-thirds of Russians no longer trusted Mr Yeltsin.

On other fronts, the Chechen campaign began to make an impact. Foreign exchange dealers, fearing war-induced inflation, sent the rouble tumbling 4 per cent to 3,667 against the dollar. Interest rates were jacked up to 200 per cent. Only massive Central Bank sales of dollars stopped a serious currency crisis.

The bank lacks sufficient funds to continue such intervention. Yet after toasting the nation on New Year's Eve with sparkling wine (still called Sovetskoye shampanskoye, or Soviet champagne), Mr Yeltsin failed to appear in public all week until Friday's Security Council meeting. One of his few known decisions was to appoint a Communist, Valentin Kovalyov, as Justice Minister.

That marked a watershed in Mr Yeltsin's three-and-a-half years as Russian President. Mr Kovalyov, rewarded for his strong support of the crackdown in Chechnya, is the first Communist minister in Mr Yeltsin's government, though the agriculture portfolio is held by a member of the Communist-aligned Agrarian Party.

At the same time Valentin Polevanov, the deputy prime minister in charge of privatising state industries, suggested it was time to renationalise some enterprises.

Taken together, these are clear signs that the era of Yeltsin-led reform is drawing to an end. But all is not necessarily lost in Russia. Western governments may have pinned their hopes on Mr Yeltsin for transforming the country, but Russian liberals have a strong case when they argue that the President is now acting as a brake on reform and that change can, indeed must, continue without him. "The fate of Russia is one thing, the fate of its president another," said Sergei Kovalyov, the huma n rights commissioner.

One heartening aspect has been the failure of the state security and propaganda machine to bully Mr Yeltsin's critics into silence. The Russian press has been, for the most part, robustly independent. Men such as Mr Kovalyov have been exceptionally bravein going to Grozny and reporting the truth about the Russian military actions. In short, it is quite possible that the liberal political reforms for which Mr Yeltsin was responsible in the early period of his presidency have progressed so far that they cannot be reversed. Economic reforms will continue to be haphazard, but the age of total state planning is gone for ever.

Dark forces obviously remain on the Russian landscape, in the shape of the military and security officers who seem to be dominating Chechen policy and who would doubtless like to impose more "order" in Russia as a whole. But the fear that they used to drill into Russians' hearts has disappeared. It is the single most striking change to anyone who knew the old Soviet Union.

All this may be little consolation to the Chechens, 130,000 of whom have fled their homes and whose republic seems destined to undergo some form of Russian military or police occupation for months, even years ahead. But large sections of Russian public opinion are genuinely ashamed of Mr Yeltsin's Chechen war, and that is a positive sign for the future.

The war signals the end of Mr Yeltsin as a reformer leading from the front, but in the long run it may give rise to forces that prove the best guarantee of Russian democracy.

Neal Ascherson, page 20

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