As Bombs Fall on Chechnya, We Aid and Comfort Yeltsin

In Moscow tomorrow Clinton must lay down new law

FOR weeks the United States and its European allies have called upon Russia to declare a humanitarian cease-fire in Chechnya in order to bury the dead, evacuate the civilian population, and search for missing relief expert Frederick Cuny. But the Russians are ignoring these pleas.

And why not? They received a more persuasive message April 11, when, at the height of the slaughter in Chechnya, the International Monetary Fund, with strong American and European support, approved a $6.8 billion loan to Russia. That loan, which provides the political and economic support for President Boris Yeltsin to pursue the war in Chechnya, implicates the US and Europe in the violations of humanitarian law his troops are committing.

As the IMF put the finishing touches on a gigantic ruble bailout -- the second largest loan in Fund history -- Russian forces were assaulting the Chechen town of Samashki, where homes were rocketed and bombed and hundreds of noncombatants were butchered by Russian troops. A Human Rights Watch research team in Chechnya last month found that Russian commanders compensated for their troops' youth, incompetence, and reluctance to fight on the ground with near-total reliance on aerial bombardment and shelling of homes, villages, and farms -- a strategy that produces enormous civilian casualties.

Nor is the bombing limited only to supposed rebel strongholds: Russian forces bomb the roads civilians flee on, the buses that carry them, and the hospitals where they bring their wounded.

Some three years in the making, the IMF's agreement provided Mr. Yeltsin with a billion dollars up front, and half-billion dollar installments every month for most of the coming year. US Treasury officials admit privately that the Chechen war was discussed during IMF deliberations -- but only in the context of its financial cost. After Russian assurances that the war would not go ''over budget,'' the deal was closed.

Yet by all accounts, the Russian war machine in Chechnya is sucking money. Andre Illarionov, a prominent economist and former economic adviser to Russian Prime Minister Chernomyrdin, estimated in late March that the war had cost $5 billion. Costs were mounting by $60 million per day. If that is true, then by this time the war has cost $6.8 billion -- the exact amount of the IMF loan.

In other words, money being fungible, the IMF's entire monthly payment into the Russian treasury is exhausted three times over by the monthly costs of the Chechen war. Nothing is left for currency stabilization, income generation, and the IMF's other lofty goals.

By the Fund's own criteria, Western governments should immediately subject next month's $500 million payment to a top-shelf review of the economic costs of the war, which may equal the entire aid package. Even if Russia does not intend to spend the billions of dollars it would take to rebuild the Chechen cities it destroyed (Grozny is uninhabitable), about half a million people have lost their homes and their livelihoods. This can't help the tattered Russian economy.

Along with the IMF bailout, Western governments have another major economic reward for Yeltsin in store. On May 18, the World Bank considers a $600 million, no-strings-attached cash loan to Moscow for import rehabilitation. The US and our allies should remove the loan from consideration immediately. Moscow should be told this money will not be on the table until a humanitarian cease-fire is in place, and accountability for the grossly abusive conduct of the war is established.

THE West has already squandered much leverage with Russia that might have saved thousands of Chechen lives. But a change of course can still protect many at risk. Despite President Yeltsin's cynical promise of a three-week cease-fire, clearly meant to avoid embarrassment during the summit, Russian soldiers are still killing civilians in Chechnya.

As President Clinton is the only world leader who has agreed to meet with President Yeltsin at Moscow's V-E ceremony tomorrow, he must tell Yeltsin that continued US support for IMF and Bank loans depends on a cessation for humanitarian reasons of Russian military activity in Chechnya.

International officials should have full access to investigate abuses and distribute aid. Economic support for Russia should be stopped until Russia complies with law, and has punished the commanders responsible for terror against civilians.

To date, the US, Europe, and the international financial institutions have made it possible for the Russian Government to pursue its cruelest war since the invasion of Afghanistan. Accordingly, the West has earned a share in Russia's shame for the murder of Chechnya.

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