LEADING ARTICLE: Reaction at war with progress

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The Independent Online
Russia's war in Chechnya is more than a local military conflict, more even than a struggle that could determine the political fate of President Boris Yeltsin. It is a battle between the forces of old and new in Russia. Reaction is pitted against p rogress, authoritarianism against modernisation. Reaction is incarnate in the military and security service commanders who have inflicted such devastation on the Chechen people and their small republic for the past month. Progress is embodied in the civi lian politicians, independent media and autonomous citizens' groups that have shown the courage to denounce the Chechen war as a stain on Russia's honour. Reaction draws on a Russian tradition of state repression and imperial adventure long predating Sov iet Communism. The tradition of progress, often weaker, has never entirely disappeared from Russia.

Mr Yeltsin, an unpredictable and inconsistent leader, staked a claim in the late 1980s and early 1990s to go down in Russian history as a man of progress. Earlier than most career Communists in Mikhail Gorbachev's Soviet Union, he grasped that the systemaround him was a moral and economic failure. He played the decisive part in abolishing it, above all by defeating the reactionary coup of August 1991. Against tremendous odds, he tried to launch reborn Russia on a path, untested in the nation's 1,000-year history, of mass democracy, civil freedoms and liberal economics. A product of Europe's most intolerant political culture, he strove to humanise the values of the Russian state.

Now, against the backdrop of the Chechen war, Mr Yeltsin looks like a man of reaction. Crude propaganda emanates from the government information machine that is answerable to him. Paranoid generals set the pace in Chechnya and Mr Yeltsin, their commander-in-chief, does nothing to rein them in. The president ignores the democratically elected parliament and concentrates power in a security council that resembles the old Soviet politburo. Russia's political order is acquiring disagreeably authoritarian features, and Mr Yeltsin bears primary responsibility.

Yet the cause of progress is not lost in Russia. Public sentiment is running strongly against the Chechen war. It is articulated by men such as Sergei Kovalyov, Russia's human rights commissioner, and by free-thinking staff on television news programmes and newspapers. Political parties, from liberal groups to the Communists, have spoken out against the war, and even some members of Mr Yeltsin's administration dislike the turn that events have taken. Collectively, these forces represent a powerful mass of opinion that the Yeltsin-led reactionaries ultimately cannot ignore. For, in contrast to the Soviet Union of Stalin or Brezhnev, the authorities lack the means and probably the will to strangle free expression indefinitely.

Russia's government may retain an authoritarian hue, at least until the next scheduled presidential elections of June 1996. But we are experiencing a rare moment of Russian history, one when the underlying forces of progress seem genuinely capable of challenging the reactionaries on top. In what is generally a dark hour for Russia, some light is breaking through.