Publication: Prism Volume: 2 Issue: 10

The Fortnight in Review

The past two weeks saw major developments in the Russian presidentialelection campaign but no resolution of the Chechen conflict; continuingfriction between Russia and its neighbors; a flurry of espionageallegations; a landmark peace agreement between Georgia and oneof its regions; and signs that the Russian economy may at lastbe about to turn the corner.

Yeltsin Moves Ahead In The Polls

There was a significant shift in the Russian presidential campaignwhen, in late April, opinion polls began to show incumbent presidentBoris Yeltsin for the first time edging ahead of Communist challengerGennady Zyuganov. By mid-May, most polling organizations wereputting Yeltsin’s lead over Zyuganov at between 0.5 and four percentagepoints. Moscow’s VTsIOM polling organization, in a survey of 1,600people, found that 28 percent of those respondents who plannedto vote would opt for Yeltsin in the first round and 27 percentfor Zyuganov. In projected second round voting, VTsIOM put Yeltsin’ssupport at 37 percent to Zyuganov’s 31 percent.

Analysts treated the figures with caution. "The results ofpublic opinion polls, particularly in our country, are alwaysbiased toward the powers-that-be," warned Nikolai Svanidze,a commentator with Russian state television (RTR); there are alsogrounds for suspecting that many respondents tend to conceal theirtrue voting intentions from pollsters. But reports that the twoleading candidates were neck and neck, and the growing convictionon the part of the Yeltsin team that Zyuganov’s support had peaked,prompted President Yeltsin to adopt a change of tactics.

There seemed at the beginning of May to be three credible presidentialcandidates: Yeltsin, Zyuganov, and the as-yet-undeclared candidateof the "Third Force" electoral alliance. Oddly assortedthough they were, the members of that alliance — Grigory Yavlinsky,Aleksandr Lebed and Svyatoslav Fedorov — had declared that inthe middle of May they would agree to unite behind one of theirnumber. According to a May 13 commentary in the newspaper Novayagazeta/ponedelnik, Yeltsin calculated in these circumstancesthat, although Zyuganov was his ultimate opponent, the Third Forcewas his immediate rival. It was from Yeltsin, not from Zyuganov,that the Third Force threatened to take votes. Yeltsin’s firstpriority was therefore to neutralize the Third Force; there wouldbe time after that to turn his attention to Zyuganov.

Yeltsin invited the members of the Third Force to the Kremlinfor individual consultations. By encouraging rumors that he wouldoffer each an important government post in return for their promiseto stand down from the election, Yeltsin succeeded in sowing distrustbetween them. As Nezavisimaya gazeta put it on May 13,"Yavlinsky’s willingness to consider Yeltsin’s proposal soundedthe death knell of the Third Force." Within a week, the alliancehad collapsed. At the time of writing, Yeltsin was continuinghis consultations with Yavlinsky and Fedorov, both of whom, whilereiterating their firm intention of running for the presidency,had simultaneously hinted at their interest in the post of primeminister in a future Yeltsin government.

Korzhakov Tests the Waters

Yeltsin’s increasing strength in the polls was not enough to assuagethe fears of some of the president’s closest associates. Lt. GeneralAleksandr Korzhakov, a former KGB officer who has been Yeltsin’schief bodyguard since his Politburo days, created a sensationat the beginning of this month when, in two separate press interviews,he called for the elections to be canceled because they threatenedto destabilize the country. Korzhakov’s words grabbed headlinesround the world since it was unimaginable, commentators agreed,that he had spoken without his boss’ prior authorization.

Yeltsin publicly rebuked Korzhakov and, on May 6, repeated thatthe elections would go ahead on the appointed date (June 16).This did not shake the conviction of many observers that Korzhakovhad been authorized to test the waters and find out how the publicwould respond to a election postponement.

Chechnya: Kremlin Tactics Conditioned by Election

With the election fast approaching, President Yeltsin seemed nocloser to his expressed aim of ending the highly unpopular warbeing waged by federal forces in Chechnya. With his "peaceplan" in self-inflicted agony, Yeltsin cast about for someother stop-gap response to the electorate’s desire for peace.On May Day and again on May 7, Yeltsin surprised the country byannouncing that he intended to pay his first-ever visit to Chechnya.His aim, he said, was "to seat them all around the negotiatingtable" — the Russian government and military, the Moscow-installedGrozny authorities, and "democratic" elements from theopposition. Officials of Russia’s power ministries, understandablyreluctant to guarantee the president’s security on such a visit,raised strong objections to the idea. Whether Yeltsin meant businessor was merely fishing for votes, his subsequent statements onthe subject were vague and left ample room for delay or cancellationof the trip. Observers pointed out that, should Yeltsin find itexpedient to go ahead with the trip before the June 16 election,he would be unlikely to venture beyond the Russian military basesat Khankala and Severny on the outskirts of the Chechen capital,Grozny. Even the center of the city is not fully under the controlof the federal forces.

Practical difficulties apart, Yeltsin’s plan to visit Chechnyabore the seeds of failure. His insistence on including Doku Zavgayev’sGrozny administration was anathema to members of the Chechen resistance.The Russian army continued to lay waste the Chechen countrysidedespite the heavy losses in men and material it itself sufferedin the process. And the commander of Russian forces in Chechnya,Lt. General Vyacheslav Tikhomirov, predicted that military operationswould continue beyond June 16. All these factors undermined thehopes of Yeltsin and his campaign managers that some kind of talksmight start before the presidential elections.

The Chechen resistance, for its part, displayed considerable interestin the possibility of talks. Its new leader, Zelimkhan Yandarbiev,and his chief of staff Aslan Maskhadov reiterated their willingnessto hold talks with Russian leaders not implicated in the killingof Djohar Dudaev. Although field commander Shamil Basaev vowedto assassinate Yeltsin should he visit the republic, other resistanceleaders disavowed Basaev’s threats by issuing an official statementin which they dissociated themselves from reprisals against Yeltsinor other Russian officials pending a clarification of the circumstancessurrounding Dudaev’s death. The head of the OSCE mission in Grozny,Swiss diplomat Tim Guldimann, shuttled between Moscow and themountain hideouts of resistance leaders in the south of Chechnyain an effort to arrange high-level talks.

Russia and the West: Cold War Revisited

Moscow’s relations with the West seemed to lurch back to the pastwhen, on May 6, Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) declarednine British diplomats "persona non grata" and announcedthat they would be expelled from the country for running a spyring in Moscow. In an exchange of recriminations that remindedmany of the Cold War, London denied the charges and warned thatit would retaliate fully against Moscow for any expulsions. Followinga week of intense behind-the-scenes negotiations, however, bothsides showed signs of readiness to step back from the brink. Althougha Russian foreign ministry spokesman announced May 14 that Moscowwould indeed proceed with the expulsions, he declined to say whenthey would take place or how many British diplomats would be involved.

The politics behind Moscow’s decision to launch the confrontationwith Britain were much debated in Russia and the West. Many speculatedthat the incident was orchestrated by the president’s office toafford Yeltsin an opportunity to stand up to the West and winnationalist votes in the upcoming presidential election. Althougha high-ranking Yeltsin aide dismissed such media speculation,two Russian newspapers later reported that the president had beenfully apprised of developments in the spy case and personallyapproved all measures taken in connection with it. The whiff ofintrigue about these reports could also be discerned in the "goodcop, bad cop" approach adopted by Russia’s foreign ministryand the FSB. It remained unclear whether they were working atcross-purposes or whether their seemingly contradictory responseshad in fact been carefully orchestrated.

The diplomatic stand-off with Britain was accompanied, moreover,by accusations from Moscow that both Estonia and the U.S. werespying in Russia. In the latter case, contradictory reports outof Russia claimed that an American businessman, traveling on theKamchatka peninsula, had been asked to leave the country for tryingto recruit an officer of Russia’s Pacific Fleet. Presidentialcampaigning aside, this flurry of intelligence-related activitiesseemed to be yet another sign of the resuscitation–politicallyand operationally–of the KGB’s post-Soviet successor organizations.

Boosting Russia’s Defense Complex

The raised profile of the Russian intelligence services was accompaniedby a series of measures boosting the fortunes of another mainstayof the Soviet regime — the defense industrial complex. On May8 President Yeltsin signed a decree reorganizing Russia’s StateCommittee for Defense Industries and raising it to the statusof a ministry. Another decree instructed the government to paymilitary producers for all debts accumulated since 1994 and exemptedcertain defense enterprises from having to pay federal taxes untilsuch debts had been repaid. Several days later, Yeltsin proposedto the mayors of ten major Russian cities that a large-scale conferencebe convened that would bring together the directors of the mostimportant defense enterprises and government ministers overseeingdefense production. A Yeltsin economic advisor announced thatsome $560 million would be channeled to the defense sector.

Yeltsin’s actions were clearly aimed both at proving that he wasnot "soft" on defense and at winning votes among themillions of Russians whose work connects them with Russia’s militaryindustrial complex. The Communist- and nationalist-dominated Dumadid some defense-related electioneering of its own when, on May8, it called on the president and government to take immediateaction to ease the Russian army’s financial plight. The appealwarned that chronic underfunding over the past five years haddegraded the armed forces and ravaged the defense industrial sector.Both the Duma’s appeal and Yeltsin’s decrees were issued, notcoincidentally, on the eve of Russian Victory Day, a campaignopportunity that Yeltsin used to full advantage by draping himselfduring the attendant ceremonies in the mantle of Russian and Sovietmartial glory.

Meanwhile, the commander of Russia’s key Moscow Military Districtjoined Yeltsin aide Aleksandr Korzhakov May 7 in calling for apostponement of the presidential election. Col. General LeontyKuznetsov said that the vote would cause instability within thearmy. He also lauded Yeltsin for having led Russia through themost difficult years of its transition and accused the president’sopponents of opportunism. In early April the high command hadsignaled its tacit support for Yeltsin’s reelection, and Kuznetsov’sbrazen call provided yet another reminder of the growing politicizationof Russia’s officer corps.

Russian Pressure in the Baltics…

The fortnight witnessed a sharp escalation in Moscow’s war ofwords against the Baltic states, with Estonia the prime target.Russia’s Foreign Ministry accused the Estonian government of deliberatelyexacerbating political differences with Russia, then expelledan Estonian diplomat from Russia on unspecified charges of improperconduct. Apparently intended to preempt Estonia’s expulsion ofa Russian diplomat accused of spying, Moscow’s move ignored Tallinn’soffer to have the Russian withdrawn without publicity. Tensionsclimaxed with a string of accusations by Russia’s FSB that Estoniangroups, and specifically the official Defense League (Kaitseliit),had been arming Russian criminal gangs, the Chechen resistance,and the Irish Republican Army. The FSB offered to work with Britishintelligence in monitoring Estonia’s alleged activities. Tallinndismissed the charges as "illogical and confused"; theBritish press gave them little credence.

The Russian Foreign Ministry joined in the FSB’s campaign by criticizingthe Estonian ambassador in Moscow for an article he had publishedin the Estonian press. The noted Russian Defense Research Instituteanalyst Anton Surikov expressed the opinion in a Baltic pressinterview that the West would not resist a Russian military interventionaimed at preventing Baltic accession to NATO. While these unusuallysharp polemics may have been colored by Russia’s electoral climate,their objectives seemed to be of longer range. Moscow appearedto be hoping to drive a wedge between the Baltic states and theirWestern counterparts by fanning concern in Western chancelleriesthat admission of the Baltic states to NATO would saddle the alliancewith dangerous liabilities and create problems in NATO’s relationswith Russia. Singling out one Baltic state for this purpose mightsuffice since the three states are treated as a unit for securitypurposes.

…And the Transcaucasus

Azerbaijan and Georgia also faced attempts by the Russian governmentto exploit their weak points. The commander of Russia’s bordertroops, General Andrei Nikolaev, chose the capital of Azerbaijan’srival Armenia to urge Azerbaijan to "participate more activelyin CIS integration" and sign an agreement on joint protectionof "CIS external borders." Such an arrangement wouldentail deployment of Russian troops on the borders of CIS membersadjoining non-CIS countries. In an apparent effort to put furtherpressure on Azerbaijan, Moscow accused Baku of facilitating movementof supplies for the Chechen resistance from Turkey; in addition,Moscow has periodically closed the Russia-Azerbaijan border tocommercial transport vital to Azerbaijan. Baku resisted Nikolaev’sproposals, as it had resisted earlier pressures. But this timeits response was hedged, suggesting that Baku might reconsiderthe issue if Moscow shifted its position on the Karabakh conflictin favor of Azerbaijan.

Azerbaijan lost its long-running legal battle to have the republic’sformer Communist party leader and president, Ayaz Mutalibov, extraditedfrom Russia on charges of involvement in armed coup attempts between1992 and 1995. The office of the Russian Prosecutor General finallyarrested Mutalibov in Moscow at Azerbaijan’s insistence, onlyto release him on grounds that the evidence "failed to prove"the case and that the charges against him in Azerbaijan were nottransferable to Russian territory. The justifications in effectsubstituted the Russian prosecutor’s ruling for that of an Azerbaijanicourt and suggested that an accused coup plotter is not extraditablefrom Russia. Mutalibov, who supports a Russian orientation forAzerbaijan, received political support from the legislative branchin the form of a special resolution of the Duma.

The outcome of this case may have rekindled the Georgian authorities’painful recollection of their own failure to obtain the extraditionof former state security chief Igor Giorgadze, who fled to Russiafollowing an August 1995 attempt on Eduard Shevardnadze’s life.Tbilisi’s judicial authorities announced last week the completionof the pre-trial investigation against several prominent figuresaccused of participating in that conspiracy. But the man accusedof being the main organizer, Giorgadze, continues to enjoy immunityin Moscow despite repeated Georgian requests for his extradition.

Georgia recorded during this fortnight a major setback in Abkhaziaand a minor gain in South Ossetia. In the runup to the CIS summit,Moscow rejected Tbilisi’s proposals to broaden the mandate ofRussian peacekeeping troops to enable them to protect Georgianrefugees being repatriated to Abkhazia. In ruling out a changein the mandate, the Russian foreign ministry claimed that it andthe armed forces would need approval from the upcoming CIS summitand the UN, neither of which had the issue on its agenda; Abkhazconsent was also described as essential.

These arguments suggested that Moscow intends to continue to usethe cover of multilateralism to enable its troops to seal Abkhazgains on the ground. Russian forces evidenced no multilateralistscruples when underwriting de facto Abkhaz secession in 1992-94.Tbilisi has warned several times that it may use its theoreticalright to demand the withdrawal of Russian peacekeeping troopsif their mandate is not broadened. But several deadlines havepassed without Georgian protest, perhaps because Tbilisi realizesthe risks involved in pressing the issue.

In South Ossetia, on the other hand, the first steps were takentoward a possible if still distant political settlement of theregion’s six-year conflict with the center. Following joint OSCE,Russian, and North Ossetian mediation, the Georgian governmentand the South Ossetian authorities worked out a memorandum onsecurity and confidence-building measures which was signed inMoscow on May 16. The parties recognized both the principle ofthe territorial integrity of states and the right of peoples toself-determination as the bases for a future negotiated settlement.Striking a balance between the two principles has proved difficultin Abkhazia, Transdniester, Karabakh, and elsewhere. But the understandingsigned this week by the Georgian and South Ossetian leaders isnonetheless an important step forward. It has undoubtedly beenfacilitated by Russia’s determination to preempt aspirations towardthe unification of North Ossetia, which is part of Russia, withGeorgia’s South Ossetia. The war in Chechnya has also strengthenedMoscow’s commitment to the principle of territorial integrity.

Has the Russian Economy Turned the Corner?

There seemed at long last to be good news on the Russian economicfront. According to government statistics announced in May, theRussian economy grew in April for the first time since marketreforms were launched. Officially recorded gross domestic productincreased in April by 2 percent over the previous month, bolsteringhopes that 1996 will, as analysts have predicted, prove the firstyear of Russian economic growth after a long period of decline.In other good news for the economy, Russian officials predictedthat inflation would reach a new record low in May. And the Russiangovernment won the approval of Western financial institutionswith its announcement, on May 16, of a new exchange rate policyaimed at encouraging investment by securing a stable currencyand low inflation. The news from the economic front brought homethe fact that, while Russia’s economic prospects appear at presentto look quite bright, the country’s political future remains farharder to predict.