Chechnya and the eclipse of the Russian liberals

Issue 

By Boris Kagarlitsky

If some reckless analyst had suggested a year ago that admirers of Yegor Gaidar would be joining on Pushkin Square with followers of extreme nationalist Viktor Anpilov to shout, "Put the Yeltsin gang on trial!", he or she would have been dismissed as delirious. But Russian life is stranger than any kind of delirium.

Beginning on December 11, columns of tanks and 40,000 troops burst on to the territory of the mutinous Chechen Republic, along the way shooting up peaceful villages and killing the health minister of neighbouring Ingushetia. Aircraft and artillery dumped tonnes of bombs and shells on the Chechen capital, Grozny.

Despite a television propaganda campaign, the antiwar movement quickly began to gather strength. Nor were the government's hopes of exploiting the racist prejudices of Russians against Chechens borne out. On the contrary, surveys showed that the attitude of Russians toward Chechens, who had become the victims of aggression, became more favourable. Press reports of the bombing and shelling, from which the Russian population of Grozny suffered as much as anyone, played a considerable role.

The weakest spot in the authorities' new scenario was the lack of combat readiness of their own army — demoralised, poorly trained and without the slightest idea of why it was supposed to fight against citizens of its own country.

The soldiers were sleeping in open fields during winter, and going into battle beneath the automatic rifle muzzles of special forces troops. They refused to carry out orders, deserted and committed acts of banditry. Tanks became stuck in bogs. During the first days of combat several colonels surrendered. After the first skirmishes with Chechens, the group of forces that was advancing on Grozny from the east halted its advance and dug itself in.

Soldiers and officers began fraternising with the population. Warriors of the Russian army often began appearing in marketplaces in the suburbs of Grozny, where the besieged population fed them and gave them cigarettes.

Destroying Grozny

Failing to take Grozny with a quick assault, the commanders of the Russian forces took out their wrath on the peaceful population, mounting an incessant bombardment of the city. The number of victims grew by the day. One of the first air raids on Grozny devastated Moskovskaya Street, where there was not a single military installation.

Although the whole world, including inhabitants of Russia, saw on television how Russian aircraft were dropping bombs on Grozny, the official Russian propagandists claimed to know nothing of any bombing, accusing the Chechens of engineering it themselves.

Just before new year, Yeltsin promised to halt the bombardment of the Chechen capital. Immediately after his speech, when residents of Grozny whose hopes had been raised by the Russian president's promises emerged from their bomb shelters, the most ferocious air raid of the entire war was unleashed. This was followed by a massed assault using tanks and infantry.

The new year attack on Grozny turned into one of the most shameful defeats in the history of the Russian army. The tanks that forced their way into the city were quickly cut off from the infantry and destroyed. The paratroopers who had taken up positions near the railway station were surrounded. The army lost half the equipment it had thrown into the battle, along with hundreds of dead and wounded. The Russian forces retreated in disorder, even as the official propaganda was telling the world that the city had been taken and the presidential palace seized.

Following this debacle, the federal forces began systematically destroying Grozny. The attackers deliberately used artillery fire to demolish block after block, trying to make their way gradually toward the presidential palace.

Meanwhile, almost the entire territory of the republic was engulfed in fighting. Skirmishes also began occurring in neighbouring Dagestan. The drawn-out siege of Grozny allowed the Chechen fighters to develop a guerilla war in the rear of the Russian forces.

Federal soldiers refused to go into battle, deserted, and in some cases crossed over to the Chechens. Journalists reported that at night, troops used bayonets to slash the tyres of their own armoured personnel carriers. According to Chechen sources, more than 20 Russian soldiers were shot by firing squad for trying to desert from the line of battle.

The fact that government news sources constantly stressed that there were no "defeatist moods" in the army, and that the soldiers were "ready to carry out any order", indirectly confirmed that discontent was ripening in the federal forces.

After arriving in the Caucasus and familiarising himself with the situation, the deputy commander of the Russian land forces, Colonel-General Eduard Vorobyov, resigned his commission. Deputy defence minister General Boris Gromov came out with a public criticism of the war. Then national television showed the commander in chief of the Russian paratroop forces, General Yevgeny Podkolzin, delivering an antiwar speech at the funeral of a colonel killed in Grozny.

Such actions by military officers in a country at war are virtually unknown, but perfectly natural in Yeltsin's Russia. After the country's ruling circles had spent five years destroying and humiliating their own army for the benefit of the West, they discovered to their surprise that this army was no longer willing or able to fight.

Pretend independence

The war on Chechnya was still more absurd for the reason that the Russian government had spent three years allowing the Chechen regime of General Dzhokhar Dudaev to do whatever it liked. After proclaiming independence from Moscow, Dudaev had done nothing to make independence a reality.

Russian laws continued to be enforced on the territory of Chechnya, and the Russian rouble remained in circulation. There were no border checks, and the Chechen government did not set up its own customs system. The inhabitants of Chechnya remained Russian citizens, dealing with their problems through the structures of the Russian Federation. Chechnya did not pay taxes, but other regions of Russia also refused to forward tax revenues from time to time.

The only thing that Dudaev did that was at all out of the ordinary was to set up armed formations under his personal control, like Yeltsin and Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov. In addition, he delighted philatelists by issuing a series of Chechen stamps bearing his portrait, and with a quality reminiscent of matchbox labels.

It is quite clear that Dudaev was not so much seeking independence as aiming at winning special status for Chechnya within the framework of Russia or of a future Eurasian Union, the need for which the Chechen general stressed repeatedly. The Moscow politicians for their part watched events in Chechnya without particular alarm. The semi-independent republic was an ideal place for laundering millions stolen in the capital and for cutting deals in smuggled weapons.

However, the crisis of the Russian regime, the economic collapse and unrelieved failures in all spheres of domestic and foreign policy, forced Yeltsin's associates to look for a way out. While the Yeltsin government had bungled any attempts it made at constructive activity, it had invariably emerged victorious from political crises.

A victorious little war seemed like an attractive way to increase the popularity of the authorities, to crush the opposition and at the same time, perhaps, to postpone the elections and get rid of the faint-hearted within the government's own ranks.

'Democratic' discomfort

As military actions began in the country for the second time in little more than a year, the nerves of many "democratic" politicians predictably gave way. Gaidar and the majority of the Russia's Choice parliamentary fraction began to protest. Against all their expectations, they found themselves in the same camp with leftists and communists. A rally on Pushkin Square on December 12 was attended by everyone from supporters of Anpilov to followers of Gaidar. But red flags predominated, and the Duma liberals felt acutely uncomfortable.

Of the deputies to the State Duma, those who were most active in denouncing the war were the Communists and the centrist "Yabloko" fraction around Grigory Yavlinsky. But neither group was prepared to head an extraparliamentary antiwar movement. The social democratic politicians generally preferred to remain silent, and did not show up at demonstrations. The leadership of Russia's largest trade union federation, the FNPR, could not even make up its mind to condemn the bombing of Chechnya, limiting itself to expressions of "concern". The antiwar campaign was initiated by radical democratic and pacifist groups, by the Party of Labour and by Trotskyists and anarchists.

Not for the first time, Yeltsin was supported by ultra- nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky. Another person to declare his solidarity with the government was Alexander Barkashov, leader of Russian National Unity, the country's best-known neo-fascist group. Meanwhile the "democratic" mass media, which in October 1993 had been united in supporting Yeltsin, were subjected to fierce attacks from the authorities.

Can it really be true that the people who a little over a year ago fought for a super-presidential constitution, for unlimited executive powers and for the use of tanks did not suspect that once set in motion, the mechanism would not stop of its own accord? For some psychologically incomprehensible reason, these people were sure that the crushing of the parliament, the shooting of demonstrators and the contempt shown for the law would have no bearing on their own rights.

It is paradoxical that this time, unlike 1993, Yeltsin has acted strictly within the framework of his constitutional powers. The leading defenders of these powers once included people like Gaidar. They, of course, imagined that these provisions would be used only against leftists. But justice triumphed. The time has at last come to recognise that to a police baton, all heads are equal.

It has been striking to observe how Gaidar and other liberals from the president's circle, who themselves took part in preparing earlier provocations, have proven so helpless when the provocations have been directed against them. They have been driven swiftly and unerringly into the same trap in which earlier parliamentary oppositions became enmeshed.

Narrowing circle

The need for a constant struggle against internal and external enemies is part and parcel of authoritarianism. This is why former allies and fellow travellers of the regime have sooner or later become its victims. The circle has continually contracted. First the Communists were defeated; then wavering democrats were thrown overboard; now the turn has come of the privatising "Westernisers" themselves.

The task of seizing property has been fulfilled. The ideology of liberalism, which allowed the regime to create a mass base for itself, has been totally exhausted and discredited. This has made the ideologues themselves unnecessary ballast for the regime.

"Serious people" understand that the time for seizing property had come to an end, and that the era of consolidation has begun. It is therefore time to replace liberal slogans with conservative ones. The idea of change is being replaced with the idea of order, and human rights by a police state.

The situation is complicated, however, by the presence of democratic institutions. On the one hand, the new social order is incompatible with democracy, while on the other, open dictatorship is impossible as well. Moreover, a certain heed must be paid to the West. The organs of repression, meanwhile, are unprepared for really broad and systematic work. They are capable only of episodic actions — raids, assaults and blockades.

The regime has been forced constantly to create democratic structures, and then when they have fulfilled their immediate purpose, to abolish them. If these structures were to survive and acquire strength, they would be dangerous and destructive for Russian nomenklatura capitalism. The Duma is less dangerous than was the old Supreme Soviet, but it has begun to take on an independent significance as well.

Cast off by the regime, Gaidar and other liberal ideologues are now concentrating on their work as Duma deputies, and despite their own best intentions have finished up in the role of defenders of parliamentarism. They understand very well that the use of force in Chechnya is to be the starting point for a new settling of accounts in Moscow. But like the members of the former Supreme Soviet, they are merely reacting to the initiatives of the executive power, and are playing according to its rules. As a result, they are bringing their own downfall nearer.

Appearing now in the unaccustomed role of an opposition, the right-wing liberals are repeating all the errors of Yeltsin's earlier adversaries. By contrast, the leaders of the Communist Party, after suffering two defeats, appear to have learned a good deal. They appreciate that you cannot frighten the authorities with hysterical declarations and with little gatherings on Pushkin Square.

The crisis in Chechnya has confronted the Communists with a new political situation. They are now losing some of their allies in the "patriotic" camp. But in speaking out against the war, they are once again acquiring their own face as the leading party of the left.

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