Chechnya: Balance the Criticism

THE battle at Pervomaiskoye is just the start of renewed fighting in Chechnya. How can the West help minimize the bloodshed, contribute to a long-term solution, and yet avoid accusations of preaching?

Here the West can take a lesson from Bosnia. The Russian press almost never claims that the Serbs are not guilty of atrocities. But they frequently accuse the West of ignoring atrocities committed by the Muslims and Croats. If the West wants Russia to listen to its criticism of renewed fighting in Chechnya, then it should mix that criticism with healthy doses of condemnation of terrorist operations launched by Dzhokhar Dudayev, Chechnya's leader, and of sympathy for Russian as well as Chechen civilian casualties.

As French Foreign Minister Herve de Charette and Russian human rights activist Sergei Kovalyov advised, Russia has just been admitted to the Council of Europe. Russia's membership will reduce the ''we versus they'' attitude that sometimes prevails in Moscow and give the West another forum in which to offer balanced criticism.

During the weeks prior to the Jan. 9 rebel attack on Kizlyar, the press and commentators in Moscow widely reported that President Yeltsin would soon resume vigorous military operations in Chechnya. The raid on Kizlyar demonstrated Dudayev's ability to orchestrate events, but it also gave Mr. Yeltsin a chance to break with ''peace building'' and renew efforts to destroy the Chechen forces.

In responding, the West should first review the events since the signing of the July 30 cease-fire in Chechnya. Following its bloody conquest of the northern part of Chechnya last year and the terrorist raid on the hospital in Budyonnovsk, Yeltsin's government began to pursue a policy of trying to rebuild ''peaceful normalcy'' in Chechnya, with the caveat that it be achieved without Dudayev and without giving Chechnya full independence. Yeltsin appointed Oleg Lobov, secretary of his Security Council, to head the effort. Trillions of rubles were spent from the federal budget.

Meanwhile, assassination attempts were made on Lobov and the military commander in Chechnya, Anatoly Romanov. Nevertheless, Yeltsin insisted that elections in Chechnya proceed as planned. Dudayev's forces responded with a bombing campaign in Grozny and a successful attack on the second largest city in Chechnya, Gudermes. In the end, the elections took place only on territories controlled by federal forces and with only one candidate for the top post.

Most Russians regret renewed fighting in Chechnya far more than distant Western critics who condemn the ''slaughter.'' They also understand far better that the fall's ''peace building'' policy had become untenable. It is impossible for federal authorities to implement a policy of rebuilding when the opposition is intent on sabotaging it and when the newly elected government lacks legitimacy.

Clearly, Yeltsin must either make a major concession to Dudayev and give him a place at the negotiating table, or order the military to erase Dudayev's ability to carry out operations like the attacks on Gudermes and Kizlyar. Politically, he cannot afford to ''turn the other cheek'' again.

Yeltsin's choice of hard-liner Nikolai Yegorov as the new head of the presidential administration is another indication that Pervomaiskoye is but the first step in renewed fighting in Chechnya. In criticizing the resulting bloodshed, the West will have a much more attentive Russian audience if the criticism emphasizes the costs to all parties to the conflict.

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