Does debate equal democracy?

With campaigns in full swing for Dec. 19 parliamentary elections,

"The silence on this issue is deafening."

As Russia heads into the final two weeks of campaigning for hard-fought parliamentary elections, many Moscow experts, including Vitaly Naumkin, are disturbed by the conspicuous quiet on the most burning issue facing the country: The nine-week-old war in Chechnya.

"The conflict in Chechnya is extremely dangerous, and it raises very many questions about where Russia is going," says Mr. Naumkin, director of the independent Center for International and Political Studies. "It's extraordinary that almost all the parties running for the Duma do not dispute the government's war policy."

Nearly 30 parties, ranging from the extreme left to the far right, are contesting Dec. 19 polls for the 450-seat Duma, or lower house. Their platforms are a cacophony of views on economics, social policy, and Russia's place in the world. But on the Kremlin's military campaign to crush the breakaway republic of Chechnya, most have no questions.

"We support the actions of the government," says Natalia Mandrova, press spokesman for the centrist Fatherland-All Russia coalition, a leading opposition force. "The main task is to destroy the potential of the terrorists [as Russians refer to Chechen rebels] and remove fear from the souls of Russian citizens." The powerful Communists, who bear historic responsibility for the crisis of ethnic relations in Russia, have virtually nothing to say about Chechnya today.

"If we were making policy, our actions in Chechnya wouldn't differ greatly from those of the government," says Communist Duma deputy Nikolai Sapozhnikov.

Russia's Westward-looking liberals, who introduced and defended market reforms and championed the democratic path for Russia, sound even more hawkish. "It was not only right, but the obligation of the Russian authorities to use intensive force to destroy the radical Islamic forces in Chechnya," says former Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, of the liberal Union of Right Wing Forces.

During the summer, Chechen warlords from the Muslim republic staged incursions into neighboring Dagestan, calling for the creation of an Islamic state in the north Caucasus. Moscow also blames unspecified Chechens for a series of apartment bombings that killed some 300 Russians. Public fear, outrage, and hunger for security encouraged the Kremlin to launch the attack on Chechnya.

Opinion polls show as many as two-thirds of Russians back the military operation. Its author, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, has climbed steadily in the ratings as Russian troops have plunged deeper into Chechen territory.

In recent days, their advance has faced stiff resistance around the besieged capital, Grozny. Federal forces reportedly suffered hundreds of casualties, and rebels accuse the Russians of slaughtering dozens of fleeing refugees.

The only political group to raise questions is the liberal Yabloko party. In October its leader, Grigory Yavlinsky, expressed concern over the masses of Chechen refugees, worried aloud that the war might be undermining Russian democracy, and suggested the Kremlin should seek negotiations with Chechnya's elected president, Aslan Maskhadov. Yabloko immediately suffered a sharp drop in opinion polls.

"Nobody is going to risk criticizing the war again, because nobody wants to share Yabloko's fate," says Valery Fyodorov, an analyst with the independent Center for Political Trends in Moscow. "Everybody is trying to sound as tough as Putin."

And yet, the struggle over Chechnya cuts to the heart of post-Soviet Russia's identity. The absence of public discussion would appear to leave the outcome in the hands of Kremlin hawks and ambitious generals.

Modern Russia is a far-flung multiethnic patchwork occupying the ruins of two great empires. Czarist Russia gathered together its vast Eurasian territories by force, creating what Lenin called "a prisonhouse of nations." The Communists sought to address this by granting constitutional autonomy and the theoretical right to self-determination to the Russian empire's diverse peoples. In practice, they used strict ideological controls and naked force to weld the Soviet Union into an "indivisible union."

As the Soviet Union unraveled, Boris Yeltsin came to leadership promising to build a fundamentally new type of Russian state. Where ties between Moscow and Russia's minority peoples had formerly been based on tight central control and coercion, he pledged democracy, equal rights, and voluntary association. "Take as much autonomy as you can swallow," Mr. Yeltsin told regional leaders in 1991.

But tiny Chechnya, which declared independence as the USSR was collapsing, proved to be too much. In 1994, Yeltsin sent troops to bring the rebel republic to heel. The war lasted two years, killed an estimated 80,000 people, and ended in Russian defeat. Yeltsin later said the decision to invade Chechnya was "the greatest mistake" of his presidency.

Russia's leading human rights campaigner, Sergei Kovalyov, warned last week in the Central European Economic Review that the new war in Chechnya means the post-Soviet attempt to build a democratic, secular, and multiethnic Russian Federation is failing. If the war continues, he wrote, "all that's left of freedom in Russia will disappear."

The reluctance of Russia's main political forces to bring the debate home in the current elections may be the clearest evidence that the country's fragile democracy is fading fast.

"All the politicians are suppressing criticism because they fear public opinion," says Mr. Fyodorov. "But by doing so they deprive the people of choice, and this makes a mockery of the whole concept of elections."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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