THE decision by Russian leaders to send the army into Chechnya has resulted in terrible human suffering for both the Chechens and for many participants in the Russian expedition. But is there a chance that this ill-fated deployment could help to build democracy in Russia?
The hard-liners in Russia's military have suffered since they showed their inefficiency in the failures and excesses of the Chechnya campaign. Dissatisfaction with the military shows up at all levels of Russian society, including among high-ranking combat veterans. In one recent poll of the Russian public, 52 percent of those questioned thought that ``true Russian patriots would oppose the war,'' while only 19 percent disagreed. The percentages were roughly the same favoring the proposition that hard-line Defense Minister Pavel Grachev should stand down.
But will Russia's democrats be able to take advantage of the opportunity that this represents? What can the West do to help? Despite widespread revulsion against the war, Russia's democrats are not in great shape. They are poorly organized, and many of those who claim to be ``democrats'' have acted with great cynicism in the past. Igor Nagdasev, head of the Russian Center for Citizenship Education, admitted recently that in some parts of Russia nowadays the term ``democrat'' is used only with a heavy overlay of irony.
Some leading democratic activists in Russia refuse to discuss Chechen demands for independence. This lack of respect for differing viewpoints does not bode well for the health of democracy in Russia.
Still, there is much that the those in the West can do to help Russia's democrats. We can redouble efforts to help them build truly democratic institutions and the habits of democratic interaction at all levels of their national life. We should stress to friends in and out of government in Russia that their country's adherence to the principles spelled out in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's 1990 Charter of Paris is as important as its territorial integrity - if not more so.
The Charter of Paris states, ``Human rights and fundamental freedoms are the birthright of all human beings.... Their respect and promotion is the first responsibility of government.'' Russia is one signatory; the United States is another. So why haven't we heard anything about these principles amid all the utterances from Washington?
Support for real democracy in Russia is not a question of abstract ideas or drawing-room preference. It is a real national necessity - for Americans as well as Russians.
RUSSIANS have an interest in seeing that the explosive social forces that emerged after the collapse of communism are managed in ways that enhance long-term stability. Since the Russian military still controls thousands of nuclear weapons, the US has a strong and direct interest in stability as well. A dogmatic, hard-line military that cannot coordinate an action in downtown Grozny has disqualified itself as candidate for prolonged control of the country's huge nuclear arsenal. As part of the broader effort to build democracy in Russia, the West should insist that Russians adhere to the democratic principle of civilian control of the military.
Where does all this leave President Boris Yeltsin? Should we support him or criticize him during the current crisis? The importance of democracy in Russia is much larger than the fate of one man. Mr. Yeltsin has a chance now to turn to the democratic agenda and to bring his gratuitously confrontational generals back under control.
Will he take it? I don't know. But that's not the point. The Chechen crisis has shown that the West needs to redouble its efforts to help Russia build a democracy - with or without Yeltsin.