LEADING ARTICLE:Chechnya in a bear hug

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It is easy to see why Russia's authorities have finally lost patience with the Caucasian republic of Chechnya and its tempestuous leader, Dzhokhar Dudayev. A former Soviet air force commander, Mr Dudayev declared Chechnya's independence after the failed conservative Communist coup of August 1991. He encouraged Chechen participation in other conflicts on Russia's southern borders. Above all, he made it his ambition to form an independent confederation of Caucasian mountain peoples, a project desig ned toeradicate Russia's presence from a region that first stirred Tsarist interest more than 200 years ago.

No foreign country, and no former Soviet republic, has extended diplomatic recognition to Chechnya. No one abroad, however sympathetic to the Chechens because of their forced deportation by Stalin in 1944, is inclined to question Moscow's view that Chechnya is legitimately part of Russia. Chechnya is seen differently from countries such as Armenia, which enjoyed the same legal status as Russia in the former Soviet Union.

But we should not view Russian behaviour without some concern. It is only 14 months since Boris Yeltsin summoned his tanks to crush an uprising at the Moscow parliament. If similar casualties are incurred in the restoration of Moscow's power over Chechnya, the new Russian democracy will acquire an unwelcome reputation for bloodshed. Moreover, Russian actions in Chechnya would seem less disturbing were it not for the fact that they fit in with a well-established pattern of deliberate interference in the affairs of neighbouring states, from Moldova to Georgia and Azerbaijan. Even in the case of Estonia, illegally seized in 1940 and relinquished in 1991, Mr Yeltsin insists that Russia has the right to keep the borders arbitrarily fixed by Stalin after theannexation, rather than those agreed in the Estonian-Russian Treaty of Tartu after the First World War. For these reasons the Chechen crisis, though taking place inside Russia's borders, is likely to offer clues to Moscow's behaviour on a wider international front. Mr Yeltsin needs to settle the crisis in a manner that does not risk injecting more uncertainty into the West's relationship with Russia.

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