Chechnya as US domestic issue

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Now that Russia has free elections, it also has election issues. And, just as generations of American candidates found it profitable to beat up on the Soviet menace, so now Russian politicians find it profitable to beat up on what is portrayed as an expansionist America.

The Dec. 19 election for the Duma, the lower house of Russia's parliament, serves as a warm-up for the more important presidential election, scheduled for June.

There are few domestic issues other than halfhearted calls to curb corruption. What overshadows this campaign is the wildly popular assault on rebellious Chechnya in the Caucasus.

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Opinion polls show 69 percent of Russians supporting the war and only 23 percent favoring negotiations to end it.

Vladimir Putin, a virtually unknown KGB alumnus until named prime minister by President Boris Yeltsin, now enjoys an unprecedented 80 percent approval rating for his relentless pursuit of the war. He is, at the moment, the odds-on favorite to succeed Mr. Yeltsin next June, if Yeltsin lasts that long.

The Clinton administration, trying to avoid increasing instability in Russia, has been conspicuously - almost embarrassingly - muted in its admonitions to the Kremlin.

Only this week, when the Russians gave Chechens five-day notice of their final assault on Grozny, did President Clinton say that Russia would "pay a heavy price" for its assault.

Does the administration get any credit with the Russians for its mildness in the face of humanitarian crimes? Not a bit.

Typical was an interview on Moscow television with Yevgeny Primakov, former prime minister, now the leading runner-up to Mr. Putin in the presidential race.

"Some forces," he said, "are currently trying to push the world toward a unipolar system in which everything revolves around the United States, and the United States dictates everything."

The general line taken by Russian candidates is that America is moving into Eastern Europe by expanding NATO, by dominating Kosovo, and now by fomenting trouble in Chechnya. All we need to complete the picture is for Yeltsin to call America "the evil empire."

If Yeltsin and Putin have an "America" problem, Mr. Clinton and Vice President Gore have a "Russia" problem.

At the European summit in Istanbul on Nov. 18, Clinton endorsed Russia's right to go after terrorists in Chechnya and limited his criticism to an admonition to try to avoid civilian casualties. Yeltsin challenged the right of the West to criticize. If the Russian Army, now apparently in full control of the operation, has made any effort to avoid civilian casualties, it has not been evident.

Yet, while Clinton talked in Seattle of sanctions in support of labor's rights, he avoided any suggestion of sanctions in support of human rights in the beleaguered Caucasus region.

Republican presidential candidates have shown no such restraint. Texas Gov. George W. Bush has said that a government that kills women and children does not merit support from international lending institutions. Sen. John McCain said that all international funding for Russia should be cut off.

On the Democratic side, Bill Bradley had taken a soft position, saying that "we must recognize that Russia is in charge of Russia." But more recently, he escalated his rhetoric, condemning Russian actions as "morally irresponsible," but without calling for sanctions.

Mr. Gore had so far managed to maintain a low profile on an issue on which he would find it difficult to depart from the administration line.

But the administration was clearly finding its restrained line untenable as the assault on Grozny grew. Clinton said that Russia would "pay a heavy price" for its assault on Chechnya, but a price that he measured in growing extremism at home and diminished standing abroad, not in a cutoff of American and international aid.

A senior administration official told me that, in diplomatic exchanges, the Clinton administration was much tougher with the Kremlin than appeared on the surface.

With Yeltsin and Putin playing to their domestic audience with harsh words and actions, Clinton and Gore were under pressure to take harsher action against Russia, or lose the issue to the Republicans.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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