A Sinking Feeling About Yeltsin

Chechnya war draws a passive stance from West but revives worries about the president's hold

AS the ferocious Bosnian war starts to hibernate, the Russian bear is awakening to present the West with a far more dangerous dilemma than the Balkan debacle.

Russia's attempt to rein in the secessionist region of Chechnya - an offensive marked by its Communist-style propaganda and indiscriminate use of military power - is raising doubts both at home and abroad about the longevity of Moscow's fragile democracy. The Chechen conflict is splitting Russia's political establishment and military, while isolating President Boris Yeltsin.

The implications are clear for the West if Russian democracy becomes a casualty of Chechnya, leading to a restoration of authoritarian rule in Moscow. Such a development may just delay Russia's evolution into a stable European state. But at worst, it could bring about a renewed cold war.

Despite the potential dangers, Western governments - including those of the United States, France, and Germany - are not displaying much will to look hard at the Russian quandary. Although there has been criticism of late over Russia's recent conduct, Western nations initially took a wait-and-hope approach to Chechnya, maintaining the conflict is an ``internal matter.''

Scenes of carnage, however, are beginning to prompt changes in the Western position. German and French officials suggested international mediation of the dispute and on Jan. 2 Bonn criticized Moscow for human rights violations.

Some political observers, however, say that the West could be digging a hole for itself by being mostly passive on Chechnya.

``As the past experience in Bosnia has shown ... even if it seems at first that doing nothing is the best option, in the long term such a course may prove more costly,'' says Steffen Sachs, deputy director of the Aspen Institute in Berlin. ``The difficulty is in figuring out where the point of no-return is.''

In Chechnya's case, more so than Bosnia, most diplomats and observers recognize that the West's ability to influence events is marginal. Most important is that Chechnya is universally recognized as a constituent part of the Russian Federation, thus providing no legal basis for complaint about Moscow's use of force there.

But the overriding concern guiding the West's ``internal-matter'' strategy is to do nothing in Washington, Paris, and Bonn that would undermine Mr. Yeltsin's grip on power in Moscow. The French, and increasingly the US and Germany, are more vocal on pressing for a negotiated settlement, but they do not condemn the principle of using force in Chechnya - only its excessive application.

``It's a no-win situation,'' Mr. Sachs says. ``The West should increase the rhetoric, but there's nothing it can really do in terms of action.''

But the West can start articulating how it would react to a return of an authoritarian regime in Russia, Sachs adds.

``It should be made clear that the West has policy options to reply to Russian actions,'' he says. ``The West should take realistic stock of the situation, exploring all the leadership options for Russia.''

Indeed, the assumption that Yeltsin is the bulwark of Russian democracy appears increasingly faulty.

He has been abandoned by most erstwhile allies in the democratic camp, and his newest political ally is ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

A head-in-the-sand Western approach toward Moscow could be the best way not to undermine Yeltsin, but at the same time it undercuts Western interests in other ways. Not only does Western silence help marginalize the dwindling number of Russian democrats, but it could also possibly fuel Russian neoimperialist tendencies, and destabilize Central and Eastern Europe.

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