Think again, Mr Yeltsin

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The Independent Online
Shortly before Russia launched its military crackdown in Chechnya, Boris Yeltsin's Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, boasted that he needed only two paratroop regiments to restore order to the rebellious republic in a couple of days. How massively wrong he was. Russian aircraft are now carrying out relentless daylight attacks on Grozny, the Chechen capital. Dozens of civilians are being killed. Homes are being blown to bits. Yet if the aim is to break the Chechens' psychological capacity for resi stance,Russia's policy is clearly backfiring. This is not surprising for a people who have survived not merely routine Tsarist and Communist oppression for two centuries, but total deportation by Stalin in 1944.

For Britain and its allies, there can be little doubt that the Russian authorities have broken their promise to use minimum force to end Chechnya's attempted secession. This does not mean that the West must revise its policy of recognising Chechnya as part of Russia. But it does mean asking hard questions about who is directing the Kremlin's Chechen policy. If, as appears likely, it is Mr Yeltsin plus a handful of military and security men, then the West has good reason to pause before doing business with a team of Russian leaders capable of selecting a small and much-abused nation for such punishment. The personal demerits of Chechnya's leader, Dzhokhar Dudayev, and the fact that Chechen gangs form part of Russia's criminal underworld, do not justify the vicious assaults on civilians that have taken place in Chechnya this week.

Mr Yeltsin has compounded his errors by making no serious attempt to explain the crackdown either to the citizens of Russia or to the world at large. A painful presidential nose operation two weeks ago no longer serves as an excuse for public silence. Russians and Westerners alike know that the crackdown has been criticised by many high-level Russian figures including army generals, liberal politicians and even Mr Yeltsin's own advisers on nationalities, emergencies, relations with parliament and human rights. The divisions inside the presidential administration and Russian armed forces make it all the more important for Mr Yeltsin not to retreat behind a wall of Soviet-style defensive secrecy.

The Chechen crisis threatens to evolve into a lengthy Russian military occupation of the northern Caucasus, costly in lives and in terms of the health of Russian reform. For the West, it is important that this reform should encompass not just market economics but political liberty and the development of a civil society. Good relations between the West and Russia depend on sharing such values. In a country where democracy has such weak roots, the use of such overwhelming force can only serve to threaten and enfeeble it. Mr Yeltsin must think again before the damage becomes irreparable.