Bloody drama, tragic results

Every resurgence of Chechen conflict is bad for both Yeltsin and Russia's liberals, says Tony Barber
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There was a terrible predictability about the bloody drama that unfolded yesterday in the northern Caucasus. It began with violence, in the shape of the seizure last Tuesday of several thousand hostages by armed Chechen rebels. Now it has reached a ferocious climax, with Russian helicopter gunships firing missiles, and artillery units bombarding an obscure Dagestani village where the rebels and their remaining 100 hostages were holed up.

This village rejoices in the Soviet-era name of Pervomayskoye, or "First of May", the day celebrated by the former Communist authorities in the name of solidarity with the international proletariat. Yesterday's grim events suggest that Pervomayskoye will earn its place in history not as a symbol of the dignity of labour, but as a site where Russia's 200-year- long struggle to impose its rule on the Caucasus took one more horrific turn for the worse.

It may be argued that President Boris Yeltsin had little choice but to use maximum force against a band of guerrillas whose seizure of innocent civilians as hostages deprived their case of all moral justification. However, the fundamental explanation for the deaths in Pervomayskoye lies in Mr Yeltsin's fatally misjudged decision to send his army and security forces into Chechnya in December 1994.

It is painful to recall that only four months before he took that decision, Mr Yeltsin made the following observations: "Forceful intervention in Chechnya is unacceptable. We in Russia have succeeded in avoiding inter- ethnic clashes only because we have refrained from forceful measures. If we violate this principle in regard to Chechnya, the Caucasus will rise up. There will be so much terror and blood that afterwards no one will forgive us."

Precisely so. According to Vladimir Rubanov, the deputy secretary of Mr Yeltsin's Security Council, which has co-ordinated operations in Chechnya, 20,000 to 30,000 people have been killed in the last 13 months. At least 2,000 Russian servicemen have died, a casualty rate which indicates that the conflict in Chechnya is costing Russia as much blood as the 1979-89 war in Afghanistan.

Yet in all this time Mr Yeltsin's forces have failed to capture either the Chechen leader, Dzhokhar Dudayev, or any of his senior field commanders. One of these commanders, Aslan Maskhadov, performed the extraordinary feat last month of occupying Chechnya's second-biggest city, Gudermes, with hundreds of fighters and staying there for a week.

There is not the slightest sign that the might of the Russian army has broken the spirit of Chechen resistance or the will for independence. There is rather stronger evidence that many ordinary Russian soldiers serving in the Caucasus are thoroughly demoralised, to the point where they even engage in black-market arms deals with their nominal enemies.

Russia's authorities portray Mr Dudayev as the illegitimate head of a corrupt, mafia-dominated regime that has inflicted untold harm on ordinary Chechens. However, as an explanation for Mr Dudayev's undoubted success in mobilising opposition to Russian rule, this clearly leaves something to be desired.

The Chechen leader derives his political strength partly from his election as president of the republic in 1991, but also from the resilient structure of Islamic society in Chechnya. A dense network of Sufi brotherhoods, impenetrable to Russian influence, blends neatly with the traditional clan system and brings together Chechens of all social categories.

The majority of these brotherhoods, though not necessarily active in politics before the Russian crackdown, have given Mr Dudayev their unqualified support since the armed forces stormed into Chechnya in December 1994. Russian attempts to install a pro-Moscow loyalist in Mr Dudayev's place have been greeted with total contempt from the Chechen population.

All of which suggests that Mr Yeltsin would do well to negotiate a swift end to the war, recognising that the alternative is long-term violence and instability across much of Russia's southern flank. If a lesson can be drawn from the dramatic events of Chechnya's history, such as Stalin's deportation of the entire nation in 1944 and the closure of all mosques between 1943 and 1978, it is that nothing sharpens the Chechen hunger for self-determination more than systematic oppression from Moscow.

Whether Russia's political circumstances will allow Mr Yeltsin to swallow his pride and do a deal with Mr Dudayev is, however, another matter. This is a presidential election year in Russia, and conventional wisdom has it that no candidate, least of all the incumbent president, can afford to look weak on Chechnya ahead of the June ballot.

Mr Yeltsin, only recently recovered from his second heart attack in a year, may choose not to run for re-election but, if he does throw his hat into the ring, the Chechen crisis will surely be a negative factor for him. What he planned as the brisk, efficient suppression of a separatist rebellion has turned into a humiliating nightmare, and all his opponents next June will argue that they could have handled matters better.

The Communists, victors in last month's parliamentary elections, are no friends to the cause of Chechen independence, and if they had been in power in 1994, they would almost certainly have approached the problem little differently from Mr Yeltsin. However, the war is a golden opportunity for them to question Mr Yeltsin's competence and turn voters against him.

For Russia's liberal reformers, the war has been little short of a catastrophe, as it has transformed Mr Yeltsin, their erstwhile champion, into a president almost completely reliant on conservative political forces. Recent personnel changes in his government and presidential staff have tilted the balance still more against the liberals.

Only yesterday he appointed as the chief of his personal administration a hardliner named Nikolai Yegorov, famous mostly for his disastrous command of military operations at the start of the Chechen war. Of the few remaining moderates in the Kremlin, three have resigned in the last two weeks - Andrei Kozyrev as foreign minister, Sergei Shakhrai as a deputy prime minister, and Sergei Filatov, who made way for Mr Yegorov on the presidential staff.

Slowly but surely, the Chechen crisis has squeezed reformers out of office and turned them into marginal actors on Russia's political stage. The political initiative lies with Mr Yeltsin and the army and security lobby on the one hand, and with the resurgent Communist opposition on the other.

Mr Yeltsin remarked last October that the Chechen war was the biggest disappointment of his presidency. It is more than that. By helping to suffocate the forces of political liberty in Moscow, it has turned into a national tragedy for Russia.