by Gregory Freidin

Opinion Section, Los Angeles Times, January 8, 1995

Some time in the future, when we begin to ponder the question who or, for that matter, what lost Russia, the first word that would come to mind may be the mysterious "Ichkeria" (ee-chke-`ree-eh), the politically correct name for Chechnya, preferred by the advocates of sovereignty for Russia's feistiest renegade republic.

No territory in Europe, not even the Balkans, can compare with the republics of Russia's North Caucasus region when it comes to the profusion of tongues and tribal customs; clan bloodshed; wars lasting for generations and waged by an imperial power over the indigenous population; inbred martial spirit, enhanced by Islam; rugged mountainous terrain; masterful brigands with an aptitude for organized far-flung criminal activity; cleverest politicians, skilled in guerrilla tactics; and to top it all off, a very recent history as victims of genocide. And even in this complicated terrain, Chechnya stands out as the prickliest flower in the garden of the Russian Federation and the thorniest one in the crown of Boris Yeltsin's presidency. The bloodshed and the stalemate of the last two weeks suggests, as they say it on the East Coast, that we haven't seen nothing yet.

When more than a century ago, Leo Tolstoy cast about for an allegory of the failure of the Russian imperial government to vanquish the free spirit of the Chechens, he chose the image of a wild burdock that was run over and crushed by a cart wheel and yet, by the end of the day rose from the dust -- as ever raw, proud and defiant. The allegory has withstood the test of Stalin's genocidal deportation of the Chechens in 1944. Now the cartwheel of history is the Russian tank's treads, but the old allegory has remained fresh and effective. No matter how much violence the Kremlin is prepared to apply to the region, the Chechnya problem will not go away.

The Russian government and the Russian politicians at large must now reassess radically their understanding of the nature of the new Russian state and the meaning of Russian federalism. This reassessment must begin at once. Otherwise, what is a deep government crisis -- brought about by an inadequate doctrine of Russia's national security and personal ambitions of a few hardliners -- may in a matter of weeks deteriorate into a total chaos in the political arena and insubordination in the Armed Forces, Interior Ministry, and the Federal Counter-Intelligence Service (the former KGB).

In the meantime, as this reassessment begins, it would be helpful both for the major players in Russia and the interested observers from overseas to remember a few pointers:

1. Legitimacy. Boris Yeltsin is still Russia's first popularly elected President and, warts and all, he is still the single most powerful guarantor of democratic reforms and the rights of property in Russia.

2. Political Base. Russian reformers, who are now attacking Yeltsin for betraying them and their democratic principles in opting for a military solution in Chechnya, should take a long and hard look at themselves and their role in Yeltsin's increasing reliance on the administrative and military pragmatists. It was the reformers' poor performance and miscalculations in the elections of December 1993 that made it necessary for Yeltsin to begin to broaden his political base. More important, it was the reformers' inability and often unwillingness to mend fences among themselves, their failure to close ranks behind the President even on isolated issues that has progressively forced Yeltsin into an alliance with the adminsitrative pragmatists to the point of his becoming their hostage. The mutual personal animosity of Yegor Gaidar and Grigorii Yavlinsky is the most glaring example of the reformers' internal feuding. There are, however, wise leaders in both parties -- such as Nikolay N. Vorontsov in Gaidar's Russia's Choice and Victor Sheinis in Yavlinsky's Yabloko -- who have been advocating such an alliance. They need support from, among others, Boris Yeltsin.

3. Negotiations. Yeltsin must summon enough political courage to impose an immediate moratorium on military actions in Chechnya and withdraw the forces from around Grozny. At the same time, he must appoint an intergovernmental committee, headed by a respected politician with roots and political experience in the region (for example, Ramazan Abdulatipov, deputy speaker of the upper chamber of parliament, or First Deputy Prime Minister and Duma Deputy, Sergei Shakhrai), with a mandate to begin unconditional negotiations with the political leadership in the Chechen Republic. Even the issue of sovereignty should be put on the table, though with the proviso that none should be in the picture in the next 30 years (six times the waiting period specified in the Israeli-Palestinian agreement, since Russia-Chechnya problem is, at least, six times as old). Dzhokhar Dudaev, by the way, is on the record, saying that Chechnya wants to be part of Russia, if Russia becomes a state governed by the rule of law (Argumenty i fakty 49, Dec. 7, 1994, p. 6).

4. Purge. Immediate resignations must be obtained from the head of the Security Council, Oleg Lobov, Minister of Defense, Pavel Grachev, Director of the Federal Counterintelligence Service, Sergei Stepashin, and Minister for Nationalities, Nikolay Yegorov. All four have been strong and uncompromising advocates of the use of large-scale violence, and they should have no part in the new realignment of forces to take shape in the wake of the Chechnya debacle. It is hard to determine whose advice turned out to be the most odious, but looking at the history of the conflict, the pride of place should be assigned to Sergei Stepashin. It was, first and foremost, his Counterintelligence Service whose unsubtle, bungled and utterly counter-productive covert actions against Dzhokhar Dudaev finally forced Yeltsin's heavy hand. Escalating over the preceding eight months, the Service's ostensibly secret operations culminated in a great public embarrassment for Moscow a month ago, when some seventy Russian officers, secretly recruited by the Service with a nod from Grachev, were taken prisoner in Grozny during their unsuccessful attempt to seize the city by force and topple Dudaev's government. It is hypocritical of Yeltsin's Chief of Staff, Viktor Ilyushin to be saying that Russia is open to unconditional negotiations and at the same time insist that Dudaev negotiate with Stepashin, Yegorov, or Grachev (interviewed on Vremya, January 3, 1995).

5. Democracy. Yeltsin can renew his credentials as an advocate of democratic reform for Russia by solemnly reaffirming his commitment to holding the parliamentary and presidential elections as scheduled, in December of 1995, and June 1996, respectively.

6. Dictatorship. Anyone advocating a solution that brings Russia closer to a dictatorship should be run out of town. This is not a matter of a political preference, but a matter of Russia's survival as a state. Over the last three years, as Russia continued to move toward a new federalism, the country's many regions have developed both a taste for relative autonomy from Moscow and, more or less, an infrastructure for running their own affairs. Only a government that respects their autonomy, one that is skilled at political horse trading and is capable of offering the regions reliable federal services can hope to keep them in the Federation. By contrast, a dictatorial Moscow is bound to have the same effect on the Russian Federation that the attempt to establish a dictatorship in August 1991 had on the Soviet Union: a) it will fail for lack of available and committed force and b) it will lead to Russia's speedy disintegration, since few of Russia's 58 regions can reconcile themselves to the status of a Moscow vassal. The kind of democracy that the Russians will have is a matter of their choice, but when it comes to preserving the integrity of their country, there is no choice other than a democratic governance.

7. Cold War Redux. The West, too, can do its share of damage. From the point of view of Russia's advocates of democracy, the worst-case scenario would go something like this. Yielding to the media's predilection for sensationalism, whipped up by CNN's graphic representations of horror and carnage piped into every living room, Western politicians and the public opinion leaders decide to pronounce Russia forever irredeemable and begin to push for a speedy expansion of NATO. With the US political terrain transformed in the recent elections and dominated now by the "negative campaign" politicians who, at least temperamentally, find comfort in the revival of the old cold-war antagonism, the temptation to push for NATO's expansion becomes well nigh irresistible. If this scenario were to be realized, then even the most pro-Western of Russia's politicians would have to interpret this change of the geopolitical terrain as the West's decision to give up on Russia, to give up on the dream of integrating Russia into the West's political, economic, military and cultural sphere. The Berlin Wall, or some modern version of the Iron Curtain, would be moved to Russia's borders. The less pro-Western politicians in Russia, of whom there are quite a few, would be more than ready to seize this opportunity and go back to the Manichean world of "us" vs. "them." For them, just as for their Western counterparts, that old world of the cold-war antagonism made it very was easy to articulate foreign policy, to establish domestic economic priorities by putting defense industries first and, most important, to have an easier time staying in power.

8. Process, not an Apocalypse. The Chechnya crisis is part of a process, not a one-time conflagration that will consume Russia and its first democratically elected government. Not unlike their American counterparts, Russians tend to be impatient with the Byzantine complexities, contradictions, and puzzles of history. But while Americans simply ignore history in order to continue going about their business, Russians tend to revel in visions of an imminent apocalypse, suing them as an excuse for never getting out of bed. This is one reason that the Chechnya debacle, horrible as it is, has been seen by more than a few otherwise sensible Russian politicians as the beginning of the end of Russia's experiment with democracy. In characterizing Yeltsin's government as "a police regime, supported only by fascists and ultranationalists," Deputy Sergei Yushenkov, the chairman of the Duma Committee on Defense and a leading member of the Russia's Choice Party, seems to be indulging in an apocalyptic revelry in order to excuse himself from continuing to press the Yeltsin into seeking compromise solutions.

10. History and Fairness. Russia's democracy is only three years old. Now it faces the consequences of and is held responsible for decisions made by rulers long gone from the scene, as it has inherited some three hundred years of a very untidy, brutal, autocratic and totalitarian imperial history. To begin to untangle it will require generations, not months or even years. Moreover, both the players and the observers of Russian politics must reconcile themselves to the fact that no matter who runs the Russian government, errors, even tragic mistakes, will be committed. Fairness to Russia will require patience and understanding.

Somewhere in the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton wrote that the US Constitution was conceived, not as a prescription for virtuous actions, but as a mechanism for dealing squarely with the consequences of political mistakes. So far, Russia's society, its press, its civil rights activists have lived up to their, broadly speaking, constitutional responsibility. The other part of Russia's new democracy, its government and its reform politicians, shall be judged by the way they deal with the unsightly consequences of their own dangerous mistakes.

Copyright (c) 1995 by Gregory Freidin


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