Already the Chechen crisis has split Russia's Choice, the reformist movement favoured by President Boris Yeltsin in last year's parliamentary elections. The movement's two leaders, Yegor Gaidar and Sergei Yushenkov, described the military action in Chechnya as a plot by the "party of war" - a shadowy collection of hardliners from the defence, intelligence and public order agencies - to bury Russia's young democracy. This caused Mr Yeltsin's Foreign Minister, Andrei Kozyrev, who is perhaps the most prominent liberal in the government, to announce he was leaving Russia's Choice. "Democracy is not a lack of power and separatism. It is the integrity of the state and order on the basis of the Russian constitution," he said.
None of Mr Yeltsin's critics is assailing him for contending that Chechnya is legitimately part of Russia. For politicians across the entire spectrum of opinion, full Chechen independence is a non-starter, as it is for Western governments. President BillClinton has called the crisis "an internal Russian affair" and expressed the hope that the trouble will be resolved with a minimum of bloodshed. Even Turkey, a country with deep historical and religious ties to the northern Caucasus, stressed the need yesterday for a settlement respecting Russia's territorial integrity. No countries, least of all former Soviet republics keen to preserve their own independence and not to antagonise Russia, have extended diplomatic recognition to Chechnya. What ever the Chechens' view on the matter, the outside world broadly accepts Moscow's view that the republic had no right to secede, for in the old Soviet Union it was not one of the 15 "union republics", such as the Ukraine or Russia itself, but a region wi th a lower level of autonomy inside Russia.
For many Russian liberals, the alarming feature of the Chechen crisis lies in the methods that Mr Yeltsin has used to defend the principle of territorial integrity. In the northern Caucasus, where resistance to Russian authority is a time-honoured tradition, and where gun ownership probably exceeds television ownership, force tends to breed more force. Grigory Yavlinsky, the reformist economist who is a potential presidential candidate in 1996, predicts conflict in the region for decades as a result of Moscow's intervention. At the age of 50, Mr Dudayev is almost young enough to emulate the Imam Shamil, the Caucasian leader who fought Russian rule for 25 years in the mid-19th century and whose memory is still revered in the region.
Reflecting on the lessons of the Tsarist period, one of Mr Yeltsin's own nationalities specialists, Valery Fatayev, the vice-president of Russia's upper house of parliament, observed: "I think it is a very grave mistake to use force to solve problems in the northern Caucasus."
The first signs of extended trouble appeared on Sunday, when fighters in the neighbouring republic of Ingushetia fired on Russian soldiers as they made for Chechnya. Muslim volunteers from other Caucasian regions are assisting the Chechen cause, just as
Mr Dudayev has encouraged Chechen units to take part in conflicts elsewhere along Russia's southern borders in the past two years. All the ingredients are in place for a long period of guerrilla and civilian resistance to Russian authority, something th
a t will do Mr Yeltsin's image little good abroad or at home.
Still, the president can justifiably argue that Chechnya had been in revolt for three years and it was finally necessary to take action. Mr Dudayev, though elected Chechnya's president in 1991 in a vote that seems to have been an accurate reflection of public opinion, is hardly a plucky democrat resisting tyranny. He is more like the flea that eventually provokes the elephant into treading on it.
Mr Dudayev offered asylum to Erich Honecker and Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the late East German and Georgian leaders, and he dreams of expelling Russian influence from the entire Caucasus. But he has done little to promote the economic and physical well-being of his people, and under his rule the Chechen capital, Grozny, has turned into one of the world's saddest examples of tin-pot anarchy.
Russian intervention in Chechnya is therefore not the same as Soviet intervention in Hungary, Czechoslovakia or Afghanistan. But the manner in which Mr Yeltsin has sought to quash the Chechen revolt is still disturbing to reformist politicians of the kind whom the president alienates at his peril. The arming and funding of an opposition "liberation force" to overthrow Mr Dudayev, and the endless hours of state-directed propaganda against the Chechen cause, are methods that owe a substantial
debt to the 70-year Soviet legacy. The hand of Russia's intelligence and security services has been unmistakably at work in the Chechen crisis. The hand of civilian politicians, with the exception of Mr Yeltsin himself, has been less evident.
This leaves a large number of Russian liberals with the impression that the president has little time for the opinions of the democratically elected parliament, or even of civilian members of his own government. Instead they suspect that Mr Yeltsin's preference is to decide policy behind closed doors, in close co-ordination with senior army and security officers. Whatever the truth, it has become clear since last December's constitutional referendum in Russia that the powerful presidency established by that vote allows scope for a degree of influence for the armed forces and intelligence agencies that would be considered unacceptable in a Western country.
By pursuing a Chechen policy that has divided liberal opinion, Mr Yeltsin is undermining those forces that remain the best hope of building a smoothly functioning political order in Russia. The disunity of these forces was one of the factors behind the electoral success of the extremist Vladimir Zhirinovsky last December. But ever since the failed uprising at the Moscow parliament building in October 1993, Mr Yeltsin has placed at least as much emphasis on the need to placate the so-called "power ministries" - defence, security and interior - as on the need to sustain the fortunes of the reformist camp. It is a strategy that is likely to carry increasing risk as the Chechen drama unfolds.
Mr Yeltsin's difficulty is that he was left with few cards to play in Chechnya. The rebellion could not be allowed to continue indefinitely. It is easy to advocate negotiation, less easy to put that into practice with a man like Mr Dudayev. But, like many a Russian reformer before him, Mr Yeltsin may find that imposing order in one corner of his realm comes at the price of a little less liberty in Russia as a whole.Reuse content