Publication: Prism Volume: 2 Issue: 2

Russia: A Time of Turmoil and Change

The Re-Making of the President

by a Special Correspondent

The past two weeks have made it clear that Boris Yeltsin is determined to seek re-election in next June’s presidential elections. Officially, the president has not made up his mind and will not make a final announcement until the middle of February. Unofficially, Yeltsin launched his campaign for re-election at the New Year, when he returned to work in the Kremlin after two months’ convalescence from a heart attack.

Yeltsin has already set up a campaign headquarters in the Kremlin, headed by one of his closest aides, Oleg Soskovets. Following the shock of December’s general election, in which the government-backed "Russia is Our Home" (ROH) won only 10 percent of the votes, and uncomfortably aware that his own popularity rating has for months been even lower than that, Yeltsin has set about re-creating his public image and fostering a "feel good" factor among the population. If he is to have any chance of winning in June (a possibility most Russian commentators discount entirely), he will have to attract the votes not only of those who supported centrist and reformist parties in December, but also of many who voted for Communist or nationalist candidates. This will not be easy. The December elections showed that the electorate is deeply divided, national consensus is lacking, and no political center-ground exists. For the moment, Yeltsin is focusing his attention on trying to win back disaffected voters who chose communist or nationalist candidates in December, and he has changed his rhetoric and his team accordingly.

Starting with his New Year’s Eve address to the nation, Yeltsin has softened his reformist rhetoric, declaring that "the main task for 1996 must be to ensure that those in Russia who today are poor should begin to live better." He has re-shuffled his government and his senior advisers. Out has gone foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev; replaced by the wily Yevgeni Primakov, formerly head of Russia’s espionage agency, the successor to the KGB. Out has gone Sergei Filatov, chief of Yeltsin’s presidential staff, to be replaced by Nikolai Yegorov, a hawk who played a key role in the decision to launch a military intervention in Chechnya in December 1994. Out has gone the last surviving minister from the reformist government of 1991, privatization czar Anatoli Chubais, whose tight monetary policies are credited with bringing the monthly rate of inflation down from 17.8 percent in January 1994 to 3.2 percent in December but blamed for the delayed payment of wages and pensions that have caused so much distress among the population. Yeltsin publicly blamed Chubais for ROH’s poor electoral showing (regardless of the fact that Chubais was not a member of ROH). The president also insinuated that Chubais had allowed valuable Russian assets to be snapped up by foreign buyers at bargain-basement prices.

Yeltsin has since signed a decree ordering that top government officials will not receive their salaries until all the wages of lower-ranking employees have been paid; privately, finance ministry officials are warning that the measure is unworkable since there is unlikely by the spring to be enough money in the government’s coffers to foot the bill.

While there is now no longer any serious doubt that Yeltsin intends to run, there is much doubt about whether his new rhetoric signals a fundamental change in economic policy, as many investors fear, or merely a change in economic priorities, as Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and presidential aide Aleksandr Livshits have assured foreign investors. The fact that Chubais was sacked in the same week that a team of IMF officials arrived in Moscow to decide whether to release the latest tranche of Russia’s $6.25 billion standby loan and to negotiate a new, three-year extended credit of $9 billion was seen by some commentators as a sign that the IMF, at any rate, views talk by leading officials of "correcting" the course of economic reform as mere vote-catching. Market reform has gone so far in Russia, many Russian and western experts argue, that attempts to reverse it now would be fruitless.

Reformers among the Russian intelligentsia, fearing that Yeltsin is determined to win re-election regardless of the price, were less sanguine. This week has seen a number of former Yeltsin loyalists, including former prime minister Yegor Gaidar and presidential human rights commissioner Sergei Kovalev, declare that they will not support Yeltsin’s bid for re-election. This is not good news for Russia’s democrats since it means that the various reformist parties, long weakened by infighting, will not support a single candidate in June. Splits in the reformist camp will make a communist victory more likely. Many analysts have predicted that the second round of the election will take the form of a contest between a reformer and a Communist. But, if the democrats cannot agree on a single candidate, they are likely to be eliminated in the first round and the second round will instead present Russian voters with a choice between a Communist and an extreme nationalist.

Meanwhile, the newly elected Duma and newly constituted Federation Council held their first sessions. Both the upper and the lower house elected as speakers men with long careers in the Soviet Communist party. While this is nothing new for Russia where, sociologist Olga Kryshtanovskaya estimates, 74 percent of senior government officials, 82 percent of regional leaders and 75 percent of the presidential apparatus are former members of the nomenklatura, it is nonetheless striking that the Duma elected as its speaker a former chief editor of Pravda, Seleznev, while the Federation Council chose a former CPSU Politburo member and Central Committee Secretary for agriculture, Yegor Stroyev. Particularly controversial was the supporting role played in Seleznev’s election by the reformist Yabloko faction. Yabloko’s decision to strike an informal bargain with the powerful Communist faction, rather than with the centrist ROH fraction, made political sense but attracted the ire of Yeltsin and of smaller reform groups. Yabloko did well out of the deal, securing the chairmanships of two influential Duma committees and forcing ROH into an alliance with Vladimir Zhirnovsky’s Liberal Democratic party that both ROH and the LDPR found distasteful. Yabloko’s ability to play political hardball is clearly not to be underestimated.

Pervomaiskoye: Yeltsin’s Military and Political Debacle

by Vladimir Socor

For nearly two weeks, Russia’s and the world’s attention has been riveted on the North Caucasus where the Moscow "power" ministries turned a hostage-taking incident into a slaughter of the innocents. The Russian security forces’ cruelty toward the hostages and other civilians, compounded by helpless incompetence, led to hundreds of unnecessary deaths. The Russian political and legal system failed to deal with the problem and the presumed official moral authorities fell silent, despite an outcry from Russia’s embattled democrats.

The avoidable tragedy began on January 9 when a Chechen detachment commanded by Salman Raduyev, a relative by marriage of president Dzhokhar Dudayev, arrived in the nearby Dagestan republic town of Kyzlar after a long passage through Russian-patrolled areas. The fighters attacked Russian military objectives in Kyzlar and took nearly 2,000 hostages in and around the municipal hospital to guarantee the detachment’s getaway. After initially demanding the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya and the North Caucasus in exchange for freeing of the hostages, the fighters did release all but approximately 100 to 150 of them, dropped political demands, and were officially promised free passage back to Chechnya where they were to release the remaining captives. Senior Dagestani officials helped broker the deal with Moscow and accompanied the convoy of fighters and hostages up to the Chechen border on January 10. Promptly on crossing that border, however, the convoy was attacked by Russian military helicopters, in the first of a series of indiscriminate attacks on captors and captives. The Chechen fighters rushed for cover with the hostages to the nearby village of Pervomaiskoye, in Dagestan territory where Russian forces encircled them and evacuated the villagers.

President Boris Yeltsin assigned his Federal Security Service (FSB) chief and close confidant, General Mikhail Barsukov, assisted by the Internal Affairs (MVD) minister, General Anatoly Kulikov, to command the operation to "release the hostages." The generals’ statements made clear from the first day that their overriding objective was to "punish" and kill the captors even at the cost of the hostages’ lives. Those statements led human rights commissioner Sergei Kovalev to predict from the outset that the operation to "save the hostages" would in fact end with killing the hostages and hostage-takers alike. Throughout the ordeal, the commanding generals and ministry spokesmen underreported the number of hostages and claimed that the hostages were being killed by their captors. The deception was needed in order to justify the indiscriminate use of military force and escape blame for the killing of the hostages in the planned destruction of the village. The FSB, MVD, and Defense Ministry took four days to assemble an inter-service force of elite units comprised of more than 2,400 soldiers, and prepare for storming the village. The approximately 200 Chechen fighters and their hostages used the interval to break the frozen ground and dig deep trenches which were to save some lives.

For four continuous days and nights from January 15 through 18, Russian artillery and helicopter gunships and eventually missile batteries bombarded Pervomaiskoye, only pausing to allow crack anti-terrorist units to attempt to storm the village. The lightly armed Chechen fighters resisted on the whole successfully, ensuring at the same time, that some of the hostages avoided death while releasing or losing control over others. Before dawn on the 19th a Chechen relief column attacked the Russian forces’ rear, enabling significant remnants of Raduyev’s detachment with several dozen hostages to break out of the encirclement and reach mountain sanctuaries. Russian forces finally captured a pulverized village devoid of life but full of the corpses of Chechen fighters, Dagestani hostages, and Russian soldiers. Russian authorities provided differing figures for military and civilian casualties and the number of hostages found. On January 22 and 23, to the Russian military’s profound embarrassment, Raduyev and other Chechen commanders gave press conferences in resistance-controlled areas, detailing their exploits and offering to release the remaining civilian hostages to Dagestan’s authorities as originally agreed in Kyzlar. All evidence indicated that the guerrillas had not harmed their captives. Most hostages who were released to or found by the Russian military were isolated from the press, treated with suspicion, and in some cases sent to filtration camps on suspicion of cooperation n with the Chechen fighters. The military and security bodies also used harsh measures to limit the access of journalists and medical personnel to Pervomaiskoye.

The operation exposed profound weaknesses within the military and security agencies. The first postmortems of the operation revealed chaos at the command level, lack of training on the part of supposedly crack units, malfunctioning equipment, and disastrous morale. Soldiers starved, froze, became drunk at their battle stations, or stole from peasant houses. Military units at times fired on each other in the dark, and the intelligence kept overestimating their opponents’ actual strength. The triple ring around Pervomaiskoye was punctured on the last night of fighting from both the outside and the inside by the Chechens. The guerrillas’ return to their mountain sanctuaries with hostages (and bodies of their own dead) was as embarrassing to the military as the Raduyev detachment’s undetected trek from Chechnya to Kyzlar.

The events served to expose the pervasive dysfunctionality, lawlessness, and lack of accountability which characterize Russia’s political system and public institutions. The country’s president gave the "power" ministries a blank check, publicly justifying and encouraging (as he had in October 1993 and since the start of the Chechnya war in late 1994) the massive use of military force against the country’s citizens. Yeltsin also lent his authority to the deception of public opinion perpetrated without much success by the military and security agencies. The Duma turned down a motion by pro-reform deputies to hold a special debate on the situation. No judicial authority is known to have attempted to look into the matter. Democratic political groups found themselves isolated on this as on other issues; and some of their last remaining representatives on the presidential council and other official bodies resigned in protest or announced their final break with Yeltsin–as did Sergei Kovalyev and Yegor Gaidar, among others. The mass media, including state television, proved yet again to be the only public institution to demonstrate skepticism toward official misinformation, independence of action, and investigative enterprise. Media coverage of the Pervomaiskoye affair appeared to severely damaged the authorities’ credibility in the eyes of the public. But this did not lead to any immediately measurable political backlash.

In the North Caucasus, that traditional testing ground of Moscow’s nationality policies, the events in Pervomaiskoye seems to have increased distrust of Moscow’s intentions and doubts about its ability to cope with the region’s problems. The Dagestan republic’s leadership, until now reliably loyal to Russia, distanced itself from Moscow’s handling of the crisis and even called for a renegotiation of the division of powers in order to reclaim security functions from the federal center. The outgoing Federation Council’s vice chairman (and deputy to the new Duma from Dagestan) Ramazan Abdulatipov, an entrenched Moscow loyalist, complained of the rise of official Russian nationalism in the policy toward the North Caucasus and discrimination against Caucasus peoples and other ethnic minorities in the metropolis. He even threatened to bring his concerns before the Council of Europe. The leaders of Ingushetia, also long loyal to Russia, underwent a similar experience earlier. According to reports from the North Caucasus, the Russian authorities’ apparent readiness to sacrifice the Dagestani hostages’ lives at Pervomaiskoye and to escalate the war in rural Chechnya is interpreted as evidence that the native people are seen as expendable. Further complicating the situation, Russian Cossacks are clamoring for restoration of their privileged military status and for arms to defend Russian state interests in the Caucasus. Elements in the Yeltsin administration appear to favor such a course, which carries the risk of inflaming ethnic tensions in the region.

Russia’s political and military leadership appears to have drawn all the wrong conclusions from this crisis. Instead of rethinking the strategy of escalation in Chechnya which they had chosen before Pervomaiskoye and which helped produce the debacle, the leadership’s statements after Pervomaiskoye evidenced a decision to expand military operations into additional populated areas. The spiral of retaliation and counterretaliation looks set to continue. Military and civilian casualties will continue to grow. Interethnic relations in the Caucasus and possibly elsewhere will deteriorate further. The role of bellicose elements around Yeltsin will increase and the president’s isolation from reformers will deepen. Finally, the public’s mounting disaffection with the ruling group will strengthen the mass base of reactionary parties. As the presidential campaign approaches, the ruling group does not evidence any intention to de-escalate the war and begin healing the wounds it has inflicted on its country.

A New Uneasiness in Relations With the West

by Stephen Foye

Revivified Russian belligerence in Chechnya and the parallel ouster of several leading reformers from the Russian government have set Moscow’s relations with the West on edge in recent weeks and raised concerns in Western capitals that the clock might be inching back toward an en earlier era of confrontation. The bloody assault by Russian special forces on Chechen-hostage takers in the city of Pervomaiskoye, which began on January 15, elicited especially strong criticism from Western policy-makers and jeopardized Russia’s admission into the Council of Europe.

Two personnel changes in the Kremlin had direct implications for Russia’s relations with the West. The first was the unexpected appointment on January 9 of Russia’s director of Foreign Intelligence Service, Yevgeny Primakov, to the vacated post of foreign minister. Although Primakov’s successor, the much-maligned Andrei Kozyrev, had long since adopted the confrontational posture of the nationalist opposition, Primakov is the real thing. As Russia’s chief spy master since 1991 he had argued strongly for reintegration of the CIS and against NATO enlargement. He is also viewed as a friend to anti-Western regimes in the Middle East, and his behind-the-scenes lobbying for Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in 1990-1991 earned him the enmity of many in Washington.

In Europe, the brutality of the Kremlin-directed military operations in Pervomaiskoye threatened an eleventh hour rejection of Russia’s already long-delayed admission into the Council of Europe. Signs that the vote might go against Russia prompted Yeltsin’s office on January 23 to issue an official statement proclaiming Russia’s adherence to the human rights norms embodied by the council and warning that a negative vote might strengthen anti-democratic forces in Russia. European leaders, torn over whether admission to the council would afford them a better lever for influencing events in Russia than would a punitive action like a vote against admission, chose the former course. Russia was subjected to withering criticism of its human rights policies and military actions in Chechnya during the lead-up debated, but the 164-35 vote in favor easily exceeded the required two-thirds majority for admission.

The international condemnation of Moscow’s actions that accompanied the Pervomaiskoye events were reminiscent of those that occurred in early 1995 following Russia’s original incursion into Chechnya. In each case, moreover, the decision to use disproportionate forces was reached in a secretive process involving only Yeltsin and his closest hard-line advisers. Western policy-makers have been left as uneasy by this decision-making process as by the military operations themselves.

Yeltsin’s determination to outflank his nationalist opposition before June’s presidential election is clearly harshening the tone of Russian policy. It nevertheless remains to be seen whether the resultant hand-wringing going on in the West is justified. Russia’s military weakness and its enduring economic difficulties will continue to limit Moscow’s foreign policy options. And Primakov has emphasized that his will be a pragmatic approach that does not eschew cooperation with the West. It is nevertheless difficult to escape the conclusion that recent developments portend an increase both in Moscow’s assertiveness and in the likelihood of confrontation with the West.