LEADING ARTICLE: Order at a price for Russia

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The Independent Online
It is clear, three weeks after Boris Yeltsin launched Russia's military crackdown in Chechnya, that the intervention has turned into a misguided adventure which could have the gravest consequences for Russian democracy. The impact of the war is tu rning out to be far greater than could have been imagined when the assault began on 11 December. Respected Russian commentators are predicting that 1995 will be the most severe test for reform in Russia since Mikhail Gorbachev came to power as the Soviet Communist Party leader ten years ago. For the Western world, Mr Yeltsin's personal political fate is now looking less important than the need to preserve the reform process as a whole.

It is undeniable that Russia had a case for ending the anarchic rebellion of the Chechen leader, Dzhokhar Dudayev. The defence of territorial integrity is a principle that all states have an interest in upholding. No Western country and no neighbour of Russia, even states appalled by the Chechen blood bath such as Turkey and Iran, is questioning the point that Chechnya ought to stay part of Russia. But in attempting to restore Russian rule over Chechnya Mr Yeltsin has committed several enormous errors.

Most obviously, he has used excessive force. Many hundreds of civilians have died needlessly in bombing raids and attacks on residential areas of Grozny. This clumsiness has opened up the prospect of a long-term Russian military occupation of Chechnya, and indeed of other parts of the northern Caucasus. A protracted war on its southern borders is the last thing Russia needs, from the point of view both of consolidating internal democracy and economic progress and of maintaining amicable relations with the West and neighbouring countries.

Perhaps worst of all, Mr Yeltsin has thrown the future of Russian reform into doubt. Certain elements in the armed forces, security services, and the president's personal entourage now hold the upper hand in policy-making. Although one or two liberals support Mr Yeltsin's war, most have parted company with him in anger and disgust. The Russian public, too, is largely against the war. However, so powerful is the executive presidency created by Mr Yeltsin's constitution last year, there is no way of changing the policy without changing the leader.

Mr Yeltsin's term of office is due to end in June 1996, but it may be that his period as a reformer has already drawn to a close. With good reason, the West once staked much on Mr Yeltsin personally. Now it is time to think of Russia as a whole.

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