Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 19

Russian Federation: Electoral Blocs are Taking ShapeAuthoritarian Trends in Belarus, MoldovaCentral Asian Countries Discuss Pipeline Plans

by Vladimir Socor


With the war in Chechnya settling into the increasingly routinizedand predictable patterns of a low-intensity, protracted guerrillaconflict, two political developments held center stage this week:domestically, the first stage of the campaign for elections tothe Duma; and internationally, the mounting frustration experienced,and expressed, by Russia’s governing elites over the decline ofpost-Soviet Russia’s status in the new Europe.

Politics. In the electoral campaign, new party blocs formedand entered the contest. The decline in OHIR’s standings, as reportedby opinion surveys, appeared to prompt that "party of power"to seek strong allies in opposition ranks. The semi-official RossiiskayaGazeta, known to reflect the views of Viktor Chernomyrdin’sgovernment, published a transparent overture to Yurii Skokov’sand Aleksandr Lebed’s nationalist Congress of Russian Communitiesfor an electoral alliance; CRC ignored the offer. Aleksandr Rutskoi’sDerzhava (Great Power) movement lost some major RussianOrthodox nationalist allies, adherents of an ethnocentric Russianor Slavic patriotism, who reproached Rutskoi for his Soviet ideologyand "internationalist" attempts to reach out to ethnicand religious minorities. Several renowned nationalist figuresformed yet another, independent bloc and list, named after oneof the group: the Sergei Govorukhin bloc, whose leader is flankedby Viktor Aksyuchits and Oleg Rumyantsev. Arkady Volsky launchedhis own bloc, increasing the dispersion of military-industrialinterests into many political directions. Yabloko lost its "b"with founder Yuri Boldyrev’s departure.

Amid the proliferation of Rusian nationalist parties and blocs,the first major party of ethnic/religious minorities completedits organization. and entered the arena. The Union of Russia’sMoslems counts on the backing of nearly 20 million Moslems inthe Russian Federation and hopes to maximize their turnout. Theparty’s program suggests that it sees itself, at least at thisearly stage, as a vehicle of special interest representation,working within the existing political system, accepting the presentform of federalism, and not interested in political Islam.

Chechnya. In Chechnya, as the disarmament-for-money ofChechen units appeared at least outwardly to get under way, aspate of reports in Russian and Western media described its largelyfictitious character. It seems that many Chechen fighters andentire units buy arms from Russian soldiers cheap and resell themto the authorities at a profit under the rubric of "voluntarydisarmament." The process appears to ensure a constant replenishmentof both the arsenal and the treasury of Chechen units.

President Boris Yeltsin’s chief representative Oleg Lobov, theSecurity Council secretary, sounded marginally less pessimisticthis week when he declared that the situation was "not hopeless."Lobov also admitted that there simply were "no plans"regarding Chechnya’s postwar reconstruction. In both Moscow andGroznyi, Lobov and other Russian policy makers made public overturesto Yeltsin’s archenemy and 1993 rebel Ruslan Khasbulatov, andeven to president Jokhar Dudayev "if he changed his atitude."Such soundings, which only recently would have been almost unthinkable,reflect Moscow’s lack of adequate political planning for Chechnya,the inadequacy of its local collaborators, and perhaps above alla wish to disengage from the daily running of this intractableregion.

Reactions. Foreign policy moved to the foreground in responseto NATO’s retaliatory strikes against Bosnian Serb positions aftertheir new shelling of Sarajevo. The reaction in Moscow involvedat least three elements of irrationality: first, the assumptionpartially fed by history that Russian interests are somehow atstake in Bosnia; second, the apparent notion that Moscow’s internationalstature would be hurt unless it demonstrated that major Westernmilitary decisions require Russian consent (this second assumptionwould not prompt Moscow to block Western actions but only to demanda quid-pro-quo for its consent); and third, that NATO actionsin Bosnia are linked to NATO’s projected enlargement and presagefuture interventions in former Soviet areas hard on Russia’s borders.

These assumptions appeared to be largely responsible for thisweek’s string of statements and decisions confronting the West’spolicies on a wide range of issues. Besides a flood of verbaldenunciations of Western policies in Yugoslavia, Moscow broughtmany additional issues into the argument. Boris Yeltsin himselftwice warned this week that NATO’s enlargement would mean a redivisionof Europe and would "spread the flames of war across Europe."The Foreign Ministry warned that Russia may quit NATO’s Partnershipfor Peace program. Yeltsin and Chernomyrdin declined to receiveMalcolm Rifkind on his first visit to Moscow as British ForeignSecretary.(Rifkind had, however, highly successful talks in Kiev).Moscow defied the US on the nuclear deal with Iran by decidingto sell to that country up to four nuclear reactors instead ofthe planned sale of two, which had strained US-Russian relations.On Yugoslavia itself, the Duma, Yeltsin, and the Chernomyrdingovernment each took steps toward a unilateral breach of the internationaleconomic sanctions.


Resistance to emergent presidential authoritarianism gatheredstrength in Belarus, where the Soviet establishmentis still largely in place, and in Moldova, whichhas in recent years experienced the transition to democracy. Inboth countries the legislative majorities began actively opposingthe attempts of Presidents Alyaksandr Lukashenka and Mircea Snegur,respectively, to institute a personalized presidential rule, aform of government to which neither country is accustomed, andwhich is at variance even with the Soviet bureaucratic model stillall too familiar in both places.

In Belarus, a shocked Supreme Soviet overwhelminglyapproved a statement denouncing Lukashenko’s latest decisionsto unilaterally suspend the right of parliamentary immunity, toban the activity of two trade unions until further notice, tooutlaw strikes in sectors deemed critical, to withhold deputies’salaries and the financing of a parliamentary election runoff,to arbitrarily change the state budget, and to encourage his cabinetof ministers to reject any accountability to parliament and refuseto appear there. Leading the parliament’s counteroffensive, SpeakerMecislau Hrib accused Lukashenko of usurping legislative functions,and petitioned the Constitutional Court to rule on the constitutionalityof the president’s measures. The legislature which finally movedto defend its separation-of-powers prerogatives consists largelyof Soviet-era holdovers, and is only slightly less Russia-orientedthan is Lukashenko.

Unless either side backs down, the country appears headed fora constitutional crisis. The situation offers the small democraticopposition grouped around the Popular Front the chance to increaseits political weight by coalescing with parts of the parliamentarymajority and, thus, an opening for promoting democratic reforms.

In Moldova, the Agrarian Democratic Party whichdominates the parliament and government held an extraordinarycongress at which it reaffirmed its adherence to the constitution,described Snegur’s bid to establish personal rule as undemocraticand destabilizing, and expressed concern that the presidentialcamp’s resort to the Romanian national idea risks dividing ethnicMoldovans among themselves as well as fanning interethnic tensions.The congress was a multiethnic event, but its ethnic Moldovanmajority used the opportunity to emphasize the Moldovan, ratherthan Romanian, national identity. Yet this age-old controversyplays only a subsidiary role in the current political conflict,which centers on a choice betwen two systems of government: thepresidential regime sought by Snegur, or the existing balancebetween legislative and executive powers which is being defendedby the parliamentary majority. The latter feels, and says, thatthe president’s authoritarian impulse risks jeopardizing the country’sacknowledged advancement toward democracy.

Ukraine learned this week that it will shortly becomethe second member country of the CIS, after Moldova and clearlyahead of Russia, to gain admittance to the Council of Europe.The decision in Strassburg recognizes, on the one hand, Ukraine’sefforts to accelerate economic and political reforms; but it equallyreflects the growing Western appreciation for Ukraine’s potentialweight and role in Europe at a time of deepening uncertainty aboutthe future of Russia. This virtual sea change in Western perceptionsof Ukraine is being keenly felt in Moscow and not just by antidemocraticcircles. It was a prominent liberal and co-leader of the reformistYabloko grouping, Vladimir Lukin, who reacted to the news of Ukraine’simpending admission to the CE by publicly recommending to presidentBoris Yeltsin and the Duma that Russia withdraw its own applicationfor admission to the CE, and abandon its guest status there. Ukraine’sgrowing international standing also showed in Western endorsementsof its offer to mediate and to host top-level negotiations tosettle the conflicts in former Yugoslavia. Coming as it did onthe heels of Russia’s own initiative, and being almost a mirrorimage of it, Kiev’s offer inevitably upstaged Moscow’s and underscoredthe Russian failure.

Also this week, Ukraine’s Ministry of Justice banned the unltranationalistUkrainian National Assembly/Ukrainian National Self-Defense (UNA/UNSO)while the government in Kiev moved with growing self-assuranceto strengthen its newly forged cooperation with the Crimea governmentand the Sevastopol city authorities. The new political situationon the peninsula strengthens Kiev’s hand in negotiatons with Moscowon the future of the Black Sea Fleet. In Moscow, Yeltsin publiclyaccused Ukraine’s president Leonid Kuchma of dishonesty for notagreeing to an immediate partition the fleet. But in Crimea the126th coastal division, Russia’s last major land force on Ukrainianterritory, began preparations for its own disbandment.


Attention in the Baltic states this week focused on regional security.Diplomats and the public reacted with shock, but not necessarilysurprise, to Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Krylov’s warningthat Russia reserved the right to use military, as well as economicand political, measures to prevent the Baltic states’ accessionto NATO. The Baltic foreign ministries replied that the warningonly proved that their decision to seek NATO membership was thecorrect one. At their annual summit meeting, held this time inTallinn, the three Baltc presidents reaffirmed their countries’aspirations for early admission to NATO, endorsed Polish proposalsfor regional security and cooperation, emphasized Ukraine’s importancein contemporary Europe, and supported the enlargement of the integratedBaltic peacekeeping battalion to a division-size force.


Aside from the war in Chechnya, the Caucasus continued to reverberatefrom the aftershocks of the assassination attempt against Georgia’shead of state Eduard Shevardnadze. The abortive attempt consolidatedShevardnarze’s position as the indisputable frontrunner in thepresidential election scheduled for November. In the meantimeit handed Shevardnadze a golden opportunity to remove top pro-Moscowcommanders from Georgia’s state security service, and to crackdown on two destructive political-paramilitary groups linked toorganized crime–Mkhedrioni and the Rescue Corps. Shevardnadze’ssurvival also preserved a necessary–albeit not sufficient–prerequisiteto a successful start of the project to pump Azerbaijan‘soil across to Turkey for further shipment to Europe. In the immediateaftermath of the assassination attempt, Shevardnadze and Turkishprime minister Tansu Ciller conferred in Tbilisi and finalizedplans related to the pipeline and other bilateral and regionalcooperation projects.

The Karabakh conflict overshadowed the meeting ofparliamentary leaders of the Transcaucasus countries, hosted inSt. Petersburg by the chairman of the Russian Federation Counciland of the CIS Interparliamentary Assembly, Vladimir Shumeiko,preparatory to an planned all-Caucasus summit called by BorisYeltsin. The draft document, which condemned separatism and calledfor joint measures against it, was reportedly blocked by the Armeniandelegation which considers the secession of Karabakh from Azerbaijanto be a matter of self-determination, rather than separatism.


The problem of obtaining physical access to the outside worldfor their exports stayed at the top of most Central Asian countries’international agendas. Turkmenistan signed a contractwith Iran for a pipeline to bring Turkmen gas to the Persian Gulfwithin two years, and discussed a far larger project with Pakistanfor a gas pipeline via Afghanistan to the Indian Ocean, possiblyparalleled by a highway and railroad along the same route. (Pakistanhad discussed a similar offer the preceding week with Kyrgyzstan).Uzbek president Islam Karimov discussed in Tashkent with Shevardnadzethe project of another "transport corridor" of pipelinesand over and routes to bring oil and gas from Central Asia tothe Mediterranean via Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey. And inthe meantime Japan markedly increased lending to fund modernizationprojects in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, and discussedlending to Kyrgyzstan. The chief merit of these projects in theeyes of most Central Asian elite groups is that of enabling themto branch out and reduce economic reliance on Russia.

Vladimir Socor is a Senior Analyst at the Jamestown Foundation.