Publication: Prism Volume: 2 Issue: 8

The Fortnight in Review

Russia’s presidential elections, now only two months away, dominated the Russian political scene and also played a role in international affairs, including the G-7’s prestigious nuclear security summit taking place this weekend in Moscow. Russia’s war in Chechnya showed no sign of abating, despite President Yeltsin’s promise of an imminent cease-fire. On the eve of the Moscow summit, the respected medical organization, Medicines Sans Frontieres, appealed to G-7 leaders to use the occasion to urge Russia to halt human rights abuses in Chechnya. In other important developments, the Baltic states and Ukraine played host to NATO secretary general Javier Solana, while the new Russia-Belarus Community of Sovereign States took its first institutional steps.

THE SUMMIT: Preparations, Irritations

Preparations were underway in Moscow for a meeting of leaders of the G-7 industrial nations and the presidents of Russia and Ukraine, Boris Yeltsin and Leonid Kuchma. The agenda for the April 19-20 meeting, to be held on the tenth anniversary of the explosion at Ukraine’s Chernobyl nuclear plant, includes improving the safety of nuclear reactors, dealing with the disposal of radioactive waste, and preventing illegal trafficking in nuclear materials. Other issues will doubtless be raised during a series of bilateral talks between Yeltsin and world leaders to take place parallel to the meeting, which will be followed April 21 by a one-day summit meeting between the U.S. and Russian presidents. Yeltsin is expected to sign several international agreements on the safe handling and storage of nuclear materials. There were also indications that Russia, which had earlier clashed with the West on the issue, would sign onto the comprehensive nuclear test ban treaty.

But the portents leading up to the G-7 summit suggested that it was unlikely to prove a watershed in promoting international cooperation on nuclear safety. With little new G-7 financing in the offing, observers suggested the gathering might be devoted as much to boosting Yeltsin’s chances in the upcoming presidential election as to confronting urgent nuclear security issues. Bellicose statements from the Russian government and atomic energy complex, rejecting Western criticism of safety standards at Russian nuclear plants and of Moscow’s planned construction of a nuclear reactor in Iran, suggested Moscow’s posture at the summit would be anything but compliant. Indeed, Russia has made clear in recent weeks its determination both to expand its domestic exploitation of nuclear energy and to continue marketing its nuclear technology abroad.

THE CAMPAIGN: Promises, Polls, Discrepancies

Russia’s presidential election is now only two months away. When the deadline for nominations closed on April 16, four candidates had been officially registered: Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov; incumbent Boris Yeltsin; ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky; and Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev. In addition, the Central Electoral Commission was considering 13 other applications. The final list must be announced by April 26.

Yeltsin and Zyuganov are campaigning energetically. Visiting Bashkortostan, Zyuganov accused Yeltsin of bringing the country to the verge of collapse but said market reforms were "irreversible" and promised to respect freedom of speech and political pluralism. Yeltsin, campaigning in southern Russia, issued a stream of vote-catching promises, pledging to increase student grants, make good wage arrears, double the minimum pension, compensate those whose savings have been eroded by inflation, and to protect domestic food producers by imposing import tariffs and quotas.

Promises may not be enough. Opinion polls consistently put Zyuganov in the lead and show Yeltsin in second place. In a poll conducted April 4-10, the Russian Center for Public Opinion Research (Russian acronym: VTsIOM) found that Zyuganov’s support had risen to 26 percent, up one percentage point from two weeks earlier, while Yeltsin’s support remained unchanged at 18 percent. But VTsIOM found public expectations of the final result to be quite different from their voting intentions, with 40 percent predicting a Yeltsin victory and only 23 percent predicting that Zyuganov would win. The explanation for the discrepancy seems to be that many members of the Russian population expect the elections to be rigged in Yeltsin’s favor. Zyuganov, for his part, complained bitterly that opinion polls and the mass media were biased in Yeltsin’s favor–a complaint that appeared justified where all but the communist media are concerned.

CHECHNYA: Peace Plan Falters

Yeltsin’s settlement plan for Chechnya, outlined in a presidential decree dated April 1, lost credibility as its two pillars–cease-fire and negotiations–crumbled. Instead of the promised cease-fire, federal forces extended the war into Chechnya’s highlands, bombing and shelling villages under the cover of "special operations" allowed for in Yeltsin’s decree. Moscow announced plans for withdrawing federal forces from "pacified" areas, but said the troops would be relocated to combat areas or to Chechnya’s borders with Dagestan and Ingushetia. In any case, the withdrawal plan provides for the permanent stationing of substantial federal forces in Chechnya.

Yeltsin’s plan for mediated political negotiations with Djohar Dudaev also seemed doomed to failure, First, the plan envisaged a shifting cast of mediators, not a permanent team able to build an atmosphere of trust. Second, it called for mediators to be designated by Moscow, not agreed by consensus between the parties to the conflict. Third, Yeltsin and his prime minister (to say nothing of the "power" ministers and federal military commanders) continued publicly to describe their would-be negotiating partner, General Dudaev, as a "bandit" and a "criminal." Dudaev, by contrast, proposed a small team of authoritative Russian mediators while expressing his preference for direct negotiations with Yeltsin–a proposal that was rejected out of hand by the Russian president.

The peace plan appeared close to collapse when the interagency commission, chaired by prime minister Chernomyrdin and tasked with implementing Yeltsin’s decree, met on April 16. The commission returned the negotiating concept to the relevant ministries for revision. It also suspended perhaps the most promising mediation channel–that of Tatarstan president Mintimer Shaimiev–apparently because of Kremlin displeasure at remarks by Shaimiev’s adviser, Rafael Hakimov. Returning from the north Caucasus, where he had attempted to contact Dudaev, Hakimov reported that Dudaev’s units were moving freely through Chechnya with the population’s support and that, as a general rule, federal troops controlled only the highways.

RUSSIA/BELARUS: Consummating the Community

Created on April 2, the Russia-Belarus Community of Sovereign States (Russian acronym: SSR) took its first steps as an institution. The SSR’s intergovernmental Executive Committee held its founding session in Moscow, under the chairmanship of Russian prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. Its first resolutions mandated equal entitlement for Russian and Belarus citizens to either country’s medical services and education systems. An interparliamentary legislative commission was created at a Moscow meeting of the chairmen of Russia’s two parliamentary chambers, Gennady Seleznev and Yevgeny Stroev with Belarus parliament chairman Semyon Sharetsky. The commission is empowered to draft legislation in areas of mutual competence defined by the April 2 agreement. The Executive Committee and the legislative commission are to convene fortnightly, with the venue and chairmanship of sessions alternating between the two sides. Whether these bodies will obliterate Belarus sovereignty is far from certain, but such a danger clearly exists and could upset the post-cold war balance of power in Central Europe.

UKRAINE: Flirting With NATO

A one-day visit to Kiev by NATO secretary general Javier Solana saw new steps in Ukraine’s gradual advance toward cooperation with the alliance. Solana stressed that "Ukraine is a European power" and "a cornerstone of European stability." President Kuchma and other Ukrainian officials called for an open and evolutionary process of NATO enlargement and for a decision not to deploy tactical nuclear weapons in new member countries. Ukraine, they stressed, was moving "toward NATO but not into NATO." National Security Council Secretary Volodymyr Horbulin and defense minister Valery Shmarov were quoted as saying that Ukraine’s non-bloc status limits its cooperation with NATO but "cannot be perpetual." The remarks echoed Kuchma’s observation (made last month in the wake of the Russian Duma’s resolutions invalidating the dissolution of the USSR) that Ukraine has no plans to move toward joining NATO "at this time."

The day after Solana’s visit, Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry announced that a document on expanded relations between Ukraine and NATO had been signed the preceding week in Brussels. It provides for high-level consultations on Ukraine’s security needs as a state that has voluntarily given up nuclear weapons. The development appears to reflect a shift in attitude on the part of Ukrainian officials who increasingly see national security advantages as well as risks in NATO’s planned enlargement. Reservations over tactical nuclear weapons may be prompted by awareness that such weapons might, in the event on an international conflict, land on Ukrainian territory.


The three Baltic states strongly affirmed their desire to join Western economic and security organizations. European Parliament chairman Klaus Haensch said the European Union would eventually admit the three Baltic states as a group, not individually. He outlined a sequence of steps involving a 1998 start of admission procedures for the three states, separate but parallel negotiations, and final admission as a group. The EU has until now issued conflicting signals regarding individual versus group admission, but a consensus appears to be forming in favor of the latter variant which may lengthen the overall process. Estonia, which seems closer than the other two Baltic countries to meeting admission criteria, has lobbied for separate consideration of each country on its merits.

NATO’s Javier Solana brought a half-reassuring message on his maiden visit to the three Baltic capitals. Solana ruled out "partial" membership — as recently proposed by Moscow — under which countries would join NATO’s political organization but not its military structure. Yet discussions reportedly focused on activities, such as Partnership for Peace cooperation and Bosnia peacekeeping, outside the immediate scope of the admission process. Solana’s visit to the Baltic region did not remove the ambiguities surrounding its place in NATO’s enlargement plans.

NATO indecision was publicly criticized by Baltic officials. Speaking in Bonn, Estonian foreign minister Siim Kallas said the newly independent countries fear a redivision of Europe that would leave them east of the dividing line. Kallas urged an adequate Western response to Russia’s "preventive diplomacy" which he summed up as, "join us before we join you." He argued that Russia should be protected against its own expansionist tendencies, and that policy statements that cast doubt on NATO’s will to admit the Baltic states "only increase Russia’s perception that the Baltic states lie within its sphere." Lithuanian Foreign Ministry secretary Albinas Januskas reinforced this view by dismissing a recent RAND Corporation study which advises NATO against admitting the Baltic states. He said the study implicitly contradicts the concept of indivisible security, separates the Baltic states from other new democracies in Central and Eastern Europe, acknowledges a Moscow veto on NATO enlargement, and rationalizes Russian special interests in the Baltic region.


Talks in Moscow April 9 between the presidents of Poland and Russia produced the expected discordance on NATO enlargement and yielded few concrete results, yet were notable for their conciliatory tone. The first sign that a slight warming in bilateral relations might be in the offing had come a week earlier when Russia’s ministers of defense and foreign trade, during a visit to Warsaw, reached a series of agreements with their Polish counterparts on military and military-technical cooperation. Russia’s relations with Israel, on the other hand, which had shown signs of improvement in recent months, were strained by Moscow’s criticism of Israeli retaliatory raids into Lebanon. While condemning the terrorist acts of the Islamic group Hezbollah, the target of the Israeli operations, Moscow called the attacks excessive and a violation of Lebanon’s sovereignty. Moscow’s reaction came on the eve of a visit to Russia by Syria’s foreign minister, a reflection of Moscow’s efforts to rebuild relations with Damascus. Finally, Moscow criticized a new peace proposal for the troubled Korean peninsula, mooted April 16 by U.S. president Bill Clinton during a visit to South Korea. The proposal envisioned no negotiating role for Moscow, a condition that the Russian Foreign Ministry said would preclude its success. North Korea’s ambassador to Moscow also rejected any Russian role, reiterating Pyongyang’s desire to negotiate a new settlement directly with the U.S.


Two weeks before am much anticipated April 24-26 visit to China, Boris Yeltsin found himself embroiled in an embarrassing domestic dispute over the nearly completed demarcation of the Russian-Chinese border. Smoldering discontent over the transfer to China of several small pieces of land along the Tumen river south of Vladivostok burst into the open April 5, when the head of a commission marking the border resigned his post in protest.

On April 11, the Russian president was forced to deny publicly an assertion by the governor of Maritime Province in Russia’s Far East that Yeltsin had ordered a suspension of the demarcation operation. Yeltsin, who has striven in recent months to coopt the patriotic themes of the Communist and nationalist opposition, found himself in a bind. A sine qua non of the new patriotism is a refusal to give up any Russian territory. Yet the steady improvement of relations with China has been one of the few great foreign policy successes of Yeltsin’s presidency, and he wants desperately to formalize these improved ties during his visit to Beijing. That goal that could be jeopardized by domestic opposition to implementation of the 1991 Russo-Chinese border agreement.

TAJIKISTAN: Opts for War, Kazakhstan Chooses Development

The government of Tajikistan and the Russian military command there signaled their unwillingness to countenance a meaningful political compromise with the opposition. First, President Imomali Rahmonov approved the statute on the organization and operation of a National Security Council as a presidential organ with sweeping powers. The move appears designed to concentrate power at the top and seems likely further to complicate negotiations with the opposition, which are essentially about power-sharing. Second, the government announced an anti-drug campaign using supplementary Tajik internal troops and Russian border troops in Badakhshan region. This may be a cover for an offensive against opposition forces entrenched in Badakhshan, since the armistice agreement presently in force bars either side from introducing supplementary forces. Third, the Russian (nominally CIS peacekeeping) forces used armor, artillery, and aviation to "simulate combat situations created by the Tajik opposition." This veiled threat breached the mandate of the Russian/CIS force, which is nominally neutral and is not supposed to engage in combat against the opposition.

In Kazakhstan, by contrast, civil peace has enabled the government to attract substantial international investment for economic development. President Nursultan Nazarbaev and former U.S. secretary of state James Baker opened a business conference in Almaty to discuss ways to increase already considerable U.S. investment in the country’s oil, gas and other sectors. The government earmarked additional plants to be turned over to Western management under a program aimed at revitalizing the metal-mining and processing sector that Kazakhstan inherited from the USSR. National Security Council Secretary Baltash Tursunbaev identified the political implication of these measures: "In view of Kazakhstan’s exceptionally rich natural resources, the international community is interested in maintaining Kazakhstan’s status as a sovereign state and independent subject of international economic activities."


Moscow played a strong card against Georgia and a weaker one against Azerbaijan in moves to increase Russian influence in the region. Moscow officially repudiated the modest economic sanctions against Abkhazia, citing concern for Abkhazia’s population–"primarily its ethnic Russians"–and unwillingness to risk the lives of Russian border troops in enforcement actions. Announced in January by Presidents Boris Yeltsin and Eduard Shevardnadze under the rubric of "combating aggressive separatism," the sanctions were never implemented. Russia’s disavowal of the sanctions will encourage continued Abkhaz intransigence in the Moscow-mediated Tbilisi-Abkhaz negotiations and thereby prolong Russia’s ability to exploit the conflict. Moscow is trying to persuade Shevardnadze that he has no option but to legalize Russian military bases in Georgia–as Shevardnadze told the Georgian parliament last week he may do–in exchange for a "constructive" Russian role in Abkhazia.

In Azerbaijan, Russia showed itself willing to sacrifice some proteges for the sake of improving relations with the government of President Heydar Aliyev. The Russian authorities arrested Azerbaijan’s former Communist party leader and president, Ayaz Mutalibov, and extradited former defense minister Rahim Gaziev, opposition leaders who had found a haven in Moscow. Gaziev had already been sentenced to death in Azerbaijan on charges of high treason and involvement in armed coups, and Mutalibov faces similar charges. Baku had long demanded the extradition of these and other opposition figures. But if Moscow hopes to trade this card for Azerbaijani concessions to Russian interests in the region, it may be overestimating its hand.

RUSSIAN COMMUNISTS LOOK AHEAD: Little Change Abroad, Regression at Home

Details have emerged in recent days of the foreign and economic policy programs on which the Russian Communist party intends to fight the June presidential elections. The former was drafted by Aleksei Podberyozhkin, head of the Spiritual Heritage movement who has encouraged party leader Gennady Zyuganov to adopt a moderate tone calculated to calm foreign audiences. There is as a result said to be little to distinguish Zyuganov’s foreign policy platform from Yeltsin’s foreign policy, which has itself become increasingly assertive since the victory of the Communists in last December’s parliamentary elections.

A different picture emerges where economic policy is concerned. There the Communist platform consists of two documents: a "Concept of Economic and Social Development of the Russian Federation from 1996 to the year 2000," drafted by the Duma’s Economic Policy Committee under chairman Yuri Maslyukov, a former head of USSR Gosplan, and a bill "On Emergency Measures to Lift Russia Out of the Crisis and Ensure the Country’s Socioeconomic Development," drafted by the Duma’s Communist faction under Igor Bratishchev. These documents are said (by Duma deputy Vladimir Lukin) to be so hard-line that "they even scare the Communists." In addition, they are reported (by Izvestiya) to have been so hastily put together that they "abound in absurdities and cast doubt on the Communist party’s vaunted intellectual potential." They call for the revival of Gosplan; control of all financial dealings by the Central Bank; reintroduction of price controls for key industrial and agricultural commodities; nationalization of strategic industries "by non-violent means"; import duties to protect domestic producers; and criminalisation of abortion to boost the birth rate. Arguments over the appropriateness of such policies are said to have provoked a virtual split in the Communist party leadership.

"The Fortnight in Review" is prepared by Senior Analysts Elizabeth Teague (Russia), Stephen Foye (Security and Foreign Policy), and Vladimir Socor (Non-Russian republics).