As Chechens Go, So Goes Yeltsin

Russian leader, democracy in peril as Moscow critics cite problems with invasion

MORE could fall before an onslaught of the Russian Army than the Chechen capital of Grozny, which has defied Moscow's ultimatum to surrender.

Equally imperiled by the prospect of all-out war is Russia's fledgling democracy itself, at a critical moment for President Boris Yeltsin's leadership, according to politicians and analysts in Moscow.

Also hanging in the balance is Russia's relationship with restive, mostly Muslim peoples across its strategic Caucasus region, where spreading violence could spell prolonged misery for Russian troops if troubles erupt.

Moscow assaulted the breakaway southern republic of Chechnya this week to quash its three-year bid for independence.

The assault marks the largest offensive military operation that Russia has launched since its debacle in Afghanistan, in which 13,000 Russians died.

In contrast to the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, however, the Chechnya intervention took place in the harsh glare of public criticism. Most Russians would rather shake off the troublesome region, which has never seen itself as part of Russia.

By week's end, Mr. Yeltsin - who has not appeared in public since the operation began - found himself abandoned by almost all his political allies in the democratic camp.

``The president's last pillars of support, the democratic parties, are stoutly opposed to military intervention,'' pointed out Vladimir Lysenko, a liberal member of the Duma (parliament) from the centrist Yabloko faction.

``Yeltsin has crossed the Rubicon,'' he said. ``And I am seriously concerned that he is not going to boost his authority with a military solution, but that he will finally lose it altogether.''

With the president's political support ebbing, as faltering reforms fail to improve living standards, ``Yeltsin's only remaining support is the state apparatus,'' warned Sergei Chugayev, an influential columnist for the liberal daily Izvestiya earlier this week.

Without a political party of his own, desperate to recoup his electoral standing in the run-up to 1996 presidential elections, and relying on advice from senior security officials, Yeltsin finds ``the idea of a `victorious little war' in Chechnya could not fail'' appealing, Mr. Chugayev suggested. ``But such ideas surface only under regimes in their death throes,'' he said.

The chances of such a war look slim given the history of Russia's relationship with the mainly Muslim North Caucasus, which succumbed to Russian rule only after a long and bitter war in the mid-19th century.

And neighboring ethnic peoples in the region may well rally to the Chechens' aid if the war drags on. Josef Stalin deported a number of Caucasian ethnic groups - including the Chechens - for allegedly collaborating with the Germans during World War II. The feelings left by those deportations are still fierce, and hatred of the Russians runs deep.

That hatred, officials here fear, could feed terrorist attacks in Russia by Chechens, who are widely spread throughout the country, many of them involved in organized crime. Preparing for the worst, Russia last week began increasing security at nuclear power stations.

Democrats who have sided with the president in all his previous political battles were particularly angered this week by the secrecy that surrounded the decision to send troops to Chechnya.

The president himself was out of the public eye in hospital, while parliament and most presidential advisers were kept firmly out of the loop by the men who appear to be running the offensive -

Defense Minister Pavel Grachev, Interior Minister Viktor Yerin, and the head of the former KGB, now renamed the Federal Counterintelligence Service, Sergei Stepashin.

``Yeltsin no longer listens to us, he does not need our advice, so it is time to move into the opposition,'' said Sergei Yushenkov, head of the Duma's Defense Committee.

The government insisted that ``the president's and the government's actions are the only possibility to prevent the disintegration of the [Russian] federation,'' as an official statement put it on Tuesday.

But even some government members saw the intervention itself as a threat to Russia's integrity.

``There are two Chechen conflicts in Russia,'' presidential aide Emil Pain told reporters at the Kremlin this week. ``One in the North Caucasus, the other in Moscow, and the one in Moscow is even more dangerous, because we are moving towards confrontation between a large number of deputies and the executive.

``The consequences may really be grave, namely another round of conflict ... which threatens to result in Russia's disintegration,'' he warned.

Perhaps more significantly, weighty Yeltsin supporters such as Alexei Kiva, an influential political analyst, appealed to the president in Thursday's edition of the government newspaper Rossiiskiye Vesti. In it he suggested that he ``distance himself'' from the ``dubious democrats'' who have failed to back his military adventure in Chechnya.

Instead, he proposed, Yeltsin should launch a new movement on a platform including ``strong statehood and healthy patriotism'' along with democracy and an efficient economy.

Such a tilt toward Russian nationalism would clearly worry Moscow's neighbors, but most of the former Soviet states are more fearful of uncontrollable violence in Chechnya.

``New military conflicts are fraught with undermining stability in the whole post-Soviet space'' warned the Kazakh Foreign Ministry of Kazakhstan, in central Asia.

Western governments, meanwhile, have adopted a hands-off approach to Russia's actions - not least because Chechnya lies within Russia's borders, and no state has recognized its unilateral declaration of independence, making the intervention legally an internal Russian affair.

But Western leaders are also clearly anxious to see Moscow keep a firm grip on its territory. ``It's not in our interest or certainly theirs to have a sort of disintegrating Russia,'' said US Secretary of State Warren Christopher on Tuesday.

The way in which Ingushi citizens - ethnic cousins to the Chechens - held up the Russian military advance earlier this week illustrated how any Chechen conflict could spread.

``Separatist feelings do not run especially deep at the moment in the North Caucasus, but this intervention will certainly exacerbate them,'' said Rashid Kaplanov, an expert on ethnic problems in the Caucasus.

That would clearly be unsettling to Moscow in a region whose strategic significance on Russia's southern border is bolstered by oilfields, pipelines, and a major Black Sea port.

If a regional conflagration is unlikely, ``one can imagine a sort of low-level, small-scale guerrilla war or terrorism'' haunting Russian forces in Chechnya and beyond, suggests Mr. Kaplanov.

``They may not have the strategic conditions for another Afghanistan,'' he said. But if the Russian Army stays, ``Russian soldiers will be disappearing.''

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