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Is Yeltsin What’s Best for Russia? : Chechnya overkill emphasizes the doubts

Will Chechnya be the graveyard of Russian democracy? Many concerned Russian democrats, among them courageous members of the government, are now publicly expressing that fear, as influential and intolerant hard-liners close to President Boris N. Yeltsin appear increasingly to be ascendant.

As a military operation the now monthlong effort to smash Chechnya’s independence movement has been a fiasco, inept in conception and blindly brutal in execution. As a test of Yeltsin’s own fidelity to the consultative requirements of democrat- ic governance and to humane values it has been a disaster, exposing his and his advisers’ utter lack of political imagination. Russia’s military has been humiliated by its failures in Chechnya. Far worse, the crude and seemingly unrestrained use of bombs and artillery to try to break the will of the Chechens has produced a needless butchery of civilians. Successive Soviet regimes amassed a long catalogue of atrocities. Russia’s first post-Soviet government has now started on its own list.

GROTESQUE TACTICS: Preserving the integrity of the Russian Federation--the main reason for moving against breakaway Chechnya--was an understandable goal, for if Chechnya was allowed to exchange autonomy for independence, other key regions would insist on trying to follow. But ruthlessly pounding Chechnya’s capital of Grozny into rubble was a grotesquely unworthy tactic, made all the more odious because of Moscow’s open lying about what it was doing. Russian newspapers and television, for now still blessedly free, day after day have exposed those lies.

NAGGING QUESTIONS: On Monday the White House said it believed that Yeltsin was still in charge of his own government and its policies. The validity of that assessment at least seems open to question. Certainly the last month has raised basic doubts about command and control procedures in Moscow and about Yeltsin’s sobriety and very ability to function.

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Yeltsin remains Russia’s democratically elected leader, and his term of office runs until June of next year. But even before Chechnya his popular support had plummeted, and his political future looks increasingly problematical. Now there’s a serious question whether he will remain in office beyond next year. This is all the more reason for Washington not to make the mistake of acting as if Yeltsin exclusively embodied the future of Russian democracy. Plainly he does not. The clear course for the Clinton Administration is to begin moving with some urgency to signal its strong support for all in Russia who remain committed to preserving and strengthening the democracy that has been so long in coming, and whose survival may now be in jeopardy.


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