Leading Article: Yeltsin's hollow victory

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The Independent Online
At last Boris Yeltsin has a victory of sorts to crow over. Yesterday he finally asserted his authority and that of Moscow by capturing the presidential palace in the Chechen capital, Grozny. But the price of this partial and symbolic victory has b een the Russian president's loss of legitimacy. Until now his real power has lain in his claim to be the only democratically elected president in his country's history. But in picking a fight with this obscure republic of mavericks and then pursuing it w ith such violence, he has sacrificed his claim to the support of democrats and liberals everywhere. Next year he may face the prospect of running for re-election and losing, not running, or abandoning the election altogether.

Against these historic implications the outcome of the continuing attrition in Chechnya may seem of less importance. A guerrilla war will rumble on; the Afghans managed a successful 11-year campaign against a much more united Russia. Many of the Chechen fighters are Afghantsi - Red Army veterans of that war - and have learnt the lessons of those battles. Chechnya is probably too small a country to support similar resistance: only half the terrain is really suitable for guerrilla operations. But the rebels may enjoy clandestine support from neighbouring Muslim republics within Russia. Indeed Chechen generals have this week been hosting press conferences in Ingushetia, supposedly still part of Russia. We can expect armed opposition to the Russians to last a very long time.

This resistance will prove to be a constant irritation to a body politic now inflamed by dispute and failure. Far from emerging from the flames of civil strife enhanced and strengthened, Boris Yeltsin has been severely weakened. The conflict has revealedthe incompetence of Russian commanders, the demoralised state of Russia's conscript soldiers and the disunity of purpose that afflicts the government in Moscow.

President Yeltsin has parted company with Russia's reformers, his natural allies, and now seems increasingly to be the prisoner of authoritarian elements in the Kremlin and the military.

The problem for all those who wish the new Russia well is that the Chechen adventure has strengthened the authoritarian forces and weakened the democrats. In this context, President Yeltsin might seem the best bet. This may well be why Douglas Hurd's speech last night about the Chechen situation was so muted in its criticisms of the Russian president. Privately, Foreign Office officials were admitting that, for the moment, the best policy is to try to coax Mr Yeltsin back on to the democratic path. We can only hope they are right.