Will Chechnya sink Yeltsin?


By Renfrey Clarke

MOSCOW — In the foothills of the Caucasus mountains near Russia's southern border, the battle is still raging for Grozny, the capital of the rebellious Chechen republic. At many other points throughout Chechnya, a popular guerilla struggle has opened up. According to the English-language Moscow Tribune on January 14, official sources in Moscow admitted that clashes were taking place across the whole territory of the Chechen republic.

Analysts agree that the military performance of the Russian army has been dismal. The general picture was summed up in an interview early in January by General Alexander Lebed, the influential commander of the Russian forces in the trans-Dnestr region of Moldavia:

"No matter what packs of lies the official sources of information might be churning out about disarming unlawful bandit formations, for the republic's inhabitants this aggression has long since turned into a people's war. The Russian regiments of boy soldiers are at war with the people, and therefore they are doomed."

For the Russian authorities, there is no obvious way out of a self-inflicted catastrophe apart from withdrawing their troops and recognising Chechen independence.

The consequences of the war have turned out to be almost as devastating for President Boris Yeltsin and his circle as for the Chechens. Since as many as 40,000 federal troops began moving into Chechnya on December 11, much of Yeltsin's remaining political support in Russia has blown away.

Throughout the Russian Federation, the aggression against Chechnya has met with overwhelming public hostility. According to a Reuters report on January 13, 78.9% of 3000 people questioned in a poll conducted by the International Sociological Research Centre said Moscow should stop its operation in Chechnya and withdraw its troops. Only 4.2% said the attempts to subdue Chechnya should continue.

Allies desert

The war has also precipitated an open break with Yeltsin by neo-liberal "reformers", alienated during 1994 by shifts in the regime's economic policies. This process has been epitomised by the defection from the presidential camp of former government leader Yegor Gaidar, the central figure in the Russia's Choice party, which once provided Yeltsin with his major base of support.

Warning against an attempt to storm Grozny, Gaidar in mid-December told a television interviewer: "If this button is pressed we will, with absolute certainty, see the collapse of democratic institutions in Russia within a few months". In the weeks since December 11, liberal newspapers such as Izvestiya and Segodnya, for years strident supporters of Yeltsin, have also moved into bitter opposition.

Yeltsin's support in Western capitals has been more enduring, but is now highly conditional. Recognising the political dangers of supporting the author of terror bombing attacks, Western leaders are keeping their backing for the Russian president low-key, hinting that they support him only for lack of an acceptable alternative.

The response to the war from Russian business circles has been mixed, but is predominantly hostile. At the criminal end of the business spectrum, racketeers look to profit from a state-sponsored pogrom against their rivals in the "Chechen mafia".

But the more established Russian bourgeoisie, as well as actual and potential foreign investors, are aghast at the likely cost of the war. Yegor Gaidar voiced the alarm and anger of the bulk of the new Russian capitalist class when he told a press conference on December 28: "Another three or four weeks [of war] and you can forget about next year's budget".

By mid-January, independent estimates were putting the total cost of the war at US$4 billion — enough to make a joke of the government's forecasts for the 1995 budget deficit. Among many economists, the government's plans for covering the deficit were a joke already; these projections rested on a far-fetched estimate of $13 billion in international loans. The war has made receipt of more than a few billion dollars of this money unlikely.

Though anxious to preserve the Russian Federation as a single economic unit, international lenders can see that Yeltsin's Chechnya adventure threatens consequences far more calamitous than the "loss" of a small Caucasus republic. As a result, the Russian government has to anticipate that loans will be withheld so long as military action continues.

With the budget deficit blowing out, there are grim times ahead for Russia's economy. Price rises, already at a monthly rate of 16% in December, are almost certain to accelerate. In the more dire scenarios, the country faces chaos and national break-up.

The war has noticeably sharpened local antagonisms against the federal authorities. At the same time, the army's failures in Chechnya have underlined the Yeltsin regime's weakness and encouraged regional leaders to express defiance. Leaders of the Chuvash and Yakut republics have decreed that their citizens should not be sent to fight in Chechnya — a virtual appeal to troops to desert.

Hostility to Moscow is at a high point throughout the north Caucasus region. In an important but little-known development, an estimated 100,000 people lined highways in the north Caucasus on December 20 in protest against the Yeltsin government's aggression.

Officers resign

A further blow against Yeltsin has been the overwhelmingly negative attitude to the Chechnya conflict shown by senior military officers. Several army commanders have resigned in protest, and others, including General Lebed and deputy defence minister General Boris Gromov, have made bitter public statements condemning the war.

Yeltsin has long been unpopular among military officers, who voted strongly for nationalist and Communist candidates in the December 1993 elections. The support which the president received from the army during his coup against the constitution and parliament in September-October 1993 was granted reluctantly, and was conditional on his agreeing to fund and support the armed forces. Many officers consider that this pledge has been broken, as defence industries have been virtually shut down and training levels have been allowed to deteriorate.

Now, the soldiers have been called in once again to risk their lives trying, as they see it, to repair the mess created by political adventurers. An extensive military revolt against Yeltsin is not an immediate prospect. But as lightly armed Chechen irregulars inflict humiliating reverses on army units, the chaos and demoralisation in the Russian armed forces have become undeniable. Further months of such fighting could make commanders decide that the only way to save the army is to get rid of Yeltsin.


The disaster that the Russian president has created for himself in Chechnya is so deep and many-sided that it raises the question: Why? How could any reasonably informed chief executive have committed such errors?

The basic reason relates to the failure of Yeltsin's neo-liberal "reform" project, which proved incapable of holding inflation to bearable levels while avoiding a widespread collapse of production. By last autumn, the government had ceased to follow any coherent economic strategy, abandoning neo-liberal precepts in favour of desperate attempts to patch holes as they opened up.

A related reason is the steady shift by an unnerved Yeltsin toward the ideas and methods of the "strong state", as he has sought to counter divisions and failures by creating a ruling apparatus based on highly concentrated presidential power. During 1994 the policy-making functions of the government were largely usurped by Yeltsin's 14-member Security Council. Within this organ, representatives of the so-called "power ministries" — defence, interior and the revamped KGB — were dominant.

Basing his rule on a narrow circle of like-minded cronies, Yeltsin increasingly lost touch with the realities of Russian life. "It has become clear that the authorities are absolutely incapable of collecting, analysing and correctly evaluating information about the social and political landscape", liberal commentator Sergei Parkhomenko remarked in December.

The efforts by Chechnya to assert its independence had for years been an irritant to the Moscow regime, and by mid-1994 Yeltsin's failure to bring the Chechens to heel had become a symbol of his regime's impotence. Between August and November a series of clumsy attempts were made to stage an "opposition revolt" that would overthrow the government of Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudaev. The last of these attempts, using Russian troops and tanks, was crushed with ease by Dudaev supporters on November 26. It was obvious that the situation in Chechnya could be "normalised" only through the open use of Russian forces.

By this time, the temptation had become powerful for the Yeltsin government to try to retrieve its prestige and support in Russia through a brief, successful war, backed by a mobilisation of anti-Chechen and anti-Islamic sentiment. The heads of the "power ministries" recommended a war; Yeltsin backed the proposal; and when the Security Council met in late November to endorse it, there was only one dissenting voice. The disaster was under way.

Yeltsin and his cronies had not the slightest idea of what a war in Chechnya would entail. During December defence minister Pavel Grachev boasted repeatedly that seizing the centre of Grozny would be the work of a few hours for a single paratroop regiment. Warnings from army officers who had served in Afghanistan were ignored or discounted. Incapable of research and analysis, Russia's leaders were guided by the traditional contempt felt by many Russians for "blacks" from the Caucasus region. Or they recalled the relative ease with which the former parliament had been crushed in October 1993.

This time, however, their adversary was not a rival group of veterans of the old nomenklatura, but the people.

Having created a catastrophe, the Yeltsin regime did not confess its error and retreat. "Russia's power ministries have repeatedly taken measures to undermine any possibility of a negotiated settlement whenever it seemed that Dudaev might come to terms", liberal commentator Otto Latsis observed early in January. In a television address on January 18, Yeltsin brusquely rejected any possibility of negotiations.

The war in Chechnya will therefore continue for months and perhaps years to come. The Russian ground forces have proven too ill trained and demoralised to do much beside commit atrocities, so the main form of Russian military action is likely to be the continued bombing of towns and villages. As opposition to these actions mounts within Russia, the Yeltsin regime can be expected to make widespread use of repressive measures.

Antiwar movement

How might the war be stopped? Technically speaking, the current parliament could force an end to the fighting through amending the constitution in order to limit Yeltsin's war-making powers. But there is no serious prospect of such a measure being passed, since the large Liberal Democratic Party fraction of extreme nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky supports the war. In any case, Yeltsin does not have a good record of obeying constitutions.

The best hope of forcing an end to the war lies in the building of a large, militant a. In Moscow pickets and small demonstrations calling for a halt to Russian aggression have been held every few days. The most active components of the movement have been the human rights groups Memorial and Soldiers' Mothers of Russia, together with radical democrats and democratic socialists.

A major disappointment for antiwar activists has been the failure of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, which claims 500,000 members across the country, to bring large numbers of its supporters onto the streets.

Leaders of the labour movement, meanwhile, were slow to come out in clear opposition to the war. But the country's main labour movement body, the Federation of Independent Trade Unions of Russia (FNPR), has now issued two protest declarations. Important numbers of union activists, and some leaders of individual unions, are taking part in antiwar meetings. FNPR member unions have also sent medical aid to Chechnya.

With the war unwinnable for the Russian authorities, Yeltsin's chances of building a stable authoritarian state machine — or even of managing a prolonged "Bonapartist" balancing act — are essentially nil. The economic position is too desperate to allow any kind of stabilisation, and a Bonaparte requires the loyal backing of effective repressive forces.

There is little doubt that historians will identify Yeltsin's Chechnya adventure as the beginning of the end for his regime. The last reel in the Yeltsin epic is now running. The plot remains obscure, but the action has turned disturbingly violent. With considerable unease, Russians are waiting for the denouement.