Publication: Prism Volume: 2 Issue: 7

The Fortnight in Review


More, or Less? In a long-awaited and repeatedly postponed address to the country, finally delivered March 31, President Boris Yeltsin unveiled a plan for settling the Chechnya conflict. The next day he issued a presidential decree conferring the force of law on that plan, the main published provisions of which were: cessation of military operations at midnight March 31-April 1, with the exception of "special operations" aimed at "destroying bandit formations" (Moscow’s name for the Chechen resistance); preparation for a phased transfer of most Russian troops "beyond Chechnya’s administrative border," i.e. to Ingushetia, Dagestan, and North Ossetia; negotiations between the Russian government and Djohar Dudaev through intermediaries with a view to establishing "peace and tranquillity;" creation of "peace zones" through agreements to be signed by districts and villages with the (Moscow-installed) Grozny authorities, and provision of reconstruction aid solely to the "peace zones:" internal law enforcement by the Grozny authorities only; holding of Chechen parliamentary elections; and negotiations between the "Chechen people’s legitimate representatives" and a Russian presidential-governmental-parliamentary commission under Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, to determine Chechnya’s future "special status" within Russia.

Yeltsin ruled out in advance "any independent Chechnya outside Russia." Civilian and military officials pointed out that under Yeltsin’s plan, as under earlier plans, the eventual military withdrawal would concern only troops "temporarily deployed" in Chechnya, not those to be "permanently based" there. These are to include two full-strength army brigades plus MVD troops. The officials also stressed that the buildup of the police forces of Doku Zavgaev’s collaborationist administration would proceed apace.

The plan in fact offered much less than Moscow had conceded in the political and military negotiations conducted from June to October 1995. Explaining the return to negotiations, Yeltsin grudgingly acknowledged for the first time in public that Dudaev enjoys the support of "a certain part of Chechnya’s people" and exercises "real authority."

On April 2, Dudaev accepted in principle Yeltsin’s proposal for mediated talks and suggested former USSR president Mikhail Gorbachev, Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky, Economic Freedom Party leader and Duma deputy Konstantin Borovoy, and Tatarstan president Mintimer Shaimiyev as possible intermediaries for immediate talks. Dudaev linked "real negotiations" to a cessation of military operations and the pullout of Russian troops from Chechnya.

Pusillanimous Politics. Yeltsin’s initiative could, at a minimum, have been expected to bring an immediate suspension of the destruction of Chechen civilian settlements and dispersion of the Chechen people. Political circles and commentators across Russia’s political spectrum ascribed Yeltsin’s initiative to electoral imperatives. The president had himself admitted publicly more than once that his reelection in June hinges on stopping this unpopular war and promised back in February to come up with a "peace plan." Yet he delayed it to give his army a chance to pursue its indiscriminate attacks on the Chechen resistance and population. In the event, Yeltsin himself and his subordinates nullified his initiative.

D.O.A. Russian forces did not stop, but on the contrary intensified the offensive operations after April 1, using aviation, artillery, and ground troops against Chechen detachments and civilian settlements in western and eastern Chechnya. Defense minister Pavel Grachev and the theater commanders correctly pointed out that they were within the letter of Yeltsin’s decree which authorized the operations in unpacified areas. The attacks increasingly focused on the southeastern Vedeno raion, presumed site of Djohar Dudaev’s headquarters. Chechen civilian casualties and Russian military losses alike went unreported. In an outburst on the campaign trail April 4, Yeltsin reverted to describing the Chechen leader as a wanted criminal. The "peace initiative" had died at birth.


Unusually Sharp. The days leading up to the announcement of Yeltsin’s peace plan saw unusually sharp criticism of Russia’s human rights record from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe — the international organization that established a mission in Grozny soon after hostilities broke out and that has concerned itself most deeply with the conflict. The as yet unpublished report, which was compiled by members of the OSCE mission in Grozny, is a more outspoken version of an earlier, more gently worded document. It has so far been distributed only to the OSCE’s participating states, but it was summarized in what is reported to be authoritative detail by the Neue Zuercher Zeitung on March 27.

As recounted by the Neue Zuercher Zeitung, the report presents a devastating indictment of Russia’s human rights record in Chechnya. Solidly documented with eyewitness accounts and other supporting materials, the report tells of looting, pillaging and other forms of wanton violence by federal troops. It reportedly says that atrocities committed by the rebels, including the taking of civilian hostages, have to be seen as minor when contrasted with behavior that has become commonplace on the part of the federal forces.

In fact, the report is said to conclude, "The aim of Russian policy is quite clearly not to fight against the separatists but to terrorize the civilian population." The report says there is no other way to interpret the way in which federal forces fired from a helicopter onto civilians traveling in a passenger train near the village of Sernovodsk and then, having landed to snatch up the survivors, took off again and flung them to their deaths from the air. Only such an explanation, the document reportedly goes on, can account for the action of the federal forces when, again in Sernovodsk, they waited until troops loyal to separatist leader Djohar Dudaev had left the village before resuming aerial bombardment against the civilian population.


The Quartet. On March 29 Presidents Boris Yeltsin of Russia, Aleksandr Lukashenko of Belarus, Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan, and Askar Akayev of Kyrgyzstan signed in the Kremlin a 28-article agreement on "deeper integration" among their countries within the Commonwealth of Independent States. The first three countries are the founders of the CIS customs union, which Kyrgyzstan joined that day. The quadripartite document envisages a "Community of Integrated States" with a common market of goods, services, capital, and labor; unified transport, energy, and information systems; coordinated price formation and industrial and agricultural policies; uniform social security policies; and support for a single "cultural space" (meaning certain privileges for the Russian language and special facilities for the Russian Diaspora’s contacts with the metropolis).

To promote these goals the four countries are forming a presidential-level Interstate Council, an Integration Committee at head-of-government level, and a parity-based Interparliamentary Committee. The decisions of these bodies will be consensual but binding once taken. The document ritualistically stipulates respect for the sides’ sovereignty, inviolability of borders, noninterference in internal affairs, equal rights, and mutual advantage. Each country signs on for five years, automatically extended by another five unless the country chooses to withdraw. The quadripartite grouping is open to other states which share its goals and principles. As potential new members Yeltsin mentioned the CIS countries generally and also the Baltic states and Bulgaria — a monumental gaffe attributable to the usual poor staff work and/or Yeltsin’s own instincts as heir to USSR leaders. Lukashenko was designated chairman of the Interstate Council, and Kazakhstan’s first deputy prime minister Nigmatzhan Isingarin as the chairman of the Integration Committee.

Yeltsin earned plaudits for this move from his Communist and ultranationalist rivals, beginning with Gennady Zyuganov, the Duma’s top Communist, and Vladimir Zhirinovsky. They credited Yeltsin personally for acting in the spirit of the Duma’s March 15 resolutions which had invalidated the dissolution of the USSR. They, as well as the governmental "Russia is Our Home", also called for extending the agreement to the political sphere in a follow-up stage.

Resonance. Even if limited to the economic sphere, the formation of a special grouping within the CIS would compound the organization’s decision-making incoherence and legal chaos. Russia will almost certainly give preferences to the "inner," customs-union core against the "outer" CIS countries in terms of access to the Russian market. Politically, a grouping around Russia may generate another around Ukraine. In Central Asia, a two-tiered CIS may impair Kazakh-Uzbek relations. Kazakh president Nursultan Nazarbayev seemed to relapse into his earlier hesitancy about independence. He commented at the signing ceremony in Moscow that Kazakhstan had not welcomed the demise of the USSR, and that current "world trends" as he sees them require the countries’ "integration" for progress. Back in Almaty he appeared to regain his composure: "Now I say: Don’t rush with integration, don’t whip the horses."

The Duet. On April 2, Presidents Boris Yeltsin and Aleksandr Lukashenko signed in the Kremlin a treaty creating a Community of Sovereign Republics–Russian abbreviation SSR–comprised of Russia and Belarus and open to the other ex-Soviet republics. Patriarch of all Russias Aleksy II blessed the act in a ceremony combining Soviet-type and Russian nationalist rhetoric and symbols. Yeltsin, Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, and other Russian officials described the treaty and the political decisions behind it as a model of freely consented integration and expressed confidence that other CIS countries will join the SSR. Yeltsin and Lukashenko declared April 2 a public holiday as "Day of the Peoples’ Unity" and resolved that countries joining the SSR in the future will also institute this national holiday. Denying any electoral expediency, top Russian officials and Lukashenko said that they had negotiated the treaty confidentially since last year. Russia’s Communist leaders praised the treaty as conforming to the spirit of the Duma’s March 15 resolutions invalidating the dissolution of the USSR and promised a prompt ratification.

The SSR treaty established supranational, parity-based governing bodies: a Supreme Council comprised of the presidents, prime ministers, and chairmen of parliament as the community’s highest policy-making authority, empowered to take mandatory decisions; a parliamentary assembly, to make decisions by majority vote; and a standing Executive Committee chaired by the prime ministers, empowered to carry out the Supreme Council’s and parliamentary assembly’s decisions. The sides will rotate in chairing these bodies for two-year terms. Otherwise the sides retain their standing as subjects of international law and their respective state symbols.

Russia and Belarus — and any future SSR members — will coordinate foreign, foreign trade, and military policies, use military infrastructures on each other’s territories to enhance their common security, and jointly guard their borders.

The community of two will have its own budget, drawing on the existing state budgets to finance specific joint programs. In the "transitional period" 1996-1997, Russia and Belarus will: synchronize their schedules of economic reforms, create a common market, introduce uniform agricultural and industrial policies and earmark industrial capacities for joint use, give each other’s citizens equal rights to acquire and own property on their territories, unify their social security and labor legislation, form joint customs services and common energy and transportation systems with uniform tariffs, and unify their budget systems with a view to introducing a common currency. The legal stage appears set for a Russian economic takeover of Belarus at an onerous cost to Russia’s economy and reforms–if the Russian government thinks it can afford that cost.

In Moscow the same day, Lukashenko was designated as chairman of the Supreme Council and Russian prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin as chairman of the Executive Committee, with Deputy Prime Ministers Aleksey Bolshakov and Mikhail Myasnikovich as vice-chairmen in charge of day-to-day operations, and a budget to be established within one month. The Committee will have its own staff, initially of "not more than 100" and will be located in the Russian presidential building in Moscow. The choice of location symbolized not only the actual center of power within the nascent "community" but also Yeltsin’s personal role in bringing it about.

The president of Tajikistan alone in the CIS joined Russia’s Communists and nationalists in hailing the SSR. Still early in the electoral campaign, the Russian president is using his powers to demonstrate that he can take the "practical steps" toward reintegrating the ex-Soviet space that his rivals can only advocate at the rhetorical level. And in the CIS countries, the most enthusiastic supporters of the Russian president’s actions are the unreconstructed Soviet nostalgics Aleksandr Lukashenko and Imomali Rahmonov.


Yeltsin as Populist. In Russia, the fortnight culminated with the real launch of the presidential campaign when, on April 2, incumbent President Boris Yeltsin was officially registered as a candidate alongside Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov. The following day, Yeltsin took the campaign to Belgorod oblast. There he promised something for everyone, assuring the elderly that their pensions would increase, students that they would get higher stipends, and investors that all those who had lost their savings since the economic reforms began would be compensated in full.

There are signs that populist measures such as these are winning Yeltsin some support. His popularity has risen since the beginning of the year, when it hit an all-time low of less than 10 percent, but it still lags behind that of Zyuganov. And, in an unusually frank interview, Yeltsin’s aide Sergei Filatov acknowledged that neither populism not anti-communism was going to be enough to win Yeltsin’s reelection. The Kremlin had "lost touch with the voters" and what was most needed, Filatov said, was "a trusting relationship between the citizenry and the authorities."


Ambiguities. The announcement of the Russian peace plan for Chechnya and, of greater import, the integrative developments in the CIS described above tended over the past fortnight to drive Moscow’s relations with the "far abroad" into the background. But Russian diplomacy was active on the world stage. Dealings with the West were mixed, as NATO expansion remained a deeply divisive issue that nevertheless did not halt cooperation in other areas. At the same time, the redirection of the Kremlin’s energies away from the West and toward Asia and the Middle East continued.

The fortnight opened March 22 with a visit to Moscow by U.S. secretary of state Warren Christopher that amply demonstrated the ambiguities in current Russian-Western relations. Fresh from a major address in Prague that reiterated Washington’s determination to pursue NATO enlargement, Christopher made no headway either in winning Moscow’s acquiescence to the alliance’s expansion or in halting Moscow’s sales of nuclear technology to Iran. But the two sides reportedly did make progress on the global nuclear test treaty and on resolving differences over the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty. Russia also worked smoothly with its Western partners in Moscow March 23 as it hosted a meeting of the Contact Group.

Supporting a Tainted Incumbent. Relations with Moscow have been made especially awkward for Western governments by the perceived need to support a tarnished Boris Yeltsin in the Russian presidential campaign. Indeed, Yeltsin’s March 25-26 visit to NATO-member Norway seemed designed as much to create a series of regal campaign photo opportunities as to deal with relations between the two countries. While the two sides did sign a declaration that included a vague conciliatory note on the importance of dialogue between NATO and Russia, the Russian president used appearances before the press to reiterate Moscow’s opposition to the expansion of the Western alliance. He also suggested a compromise proposal, unacceptable to most Eastern European governments, by which new NATO member states would join only NATO’s political wing while foregoing participation in its military structures.

The Chechnya Inconvenience. Foreign support for Yeltsin is likely to be tested — yet again — by the peace plan for Chechnya that he announced March 31. Western governments were quick to embrace the initiative as offering at least some hope of peace. But there was also an undercurrent of skepticism. In the U.S., a White House spokesman underscored that Washington would be observing Moscow’s "execution" of the plan, a remark that mirrored in a public statement by the French Foreign Office. Two leading German dailies suggested that hostilities would continue, both because so much blood has already been spilled by the Chechens and because too many forces on both sides have no interest in a cease-fire. But European diplomats, presumably with the upcoming election in mind, predicted that governments there would keep a low profile on the issue.

Furor in Sofia. The Russian Duma’s March 15 vote denouncing disbandment of the USSR and Boris Yeltsin’s March 29 statement including Bulgaria among those countries that might wish to join the Russian-led quadripartite union have together set off a political furor in Sofia that threatens Moscow’s friendly ties to this former Warsaw Pact state. Moscow’s actions have put Bulgaria’s government and its pro-Russian parliament on the defensive, and have energized the nation’s anti-Communist president. He has accused the government of secretly betraying Bulgarian interests in talks with Moscow and, in response, has urged an intensification of Sofia’s efforts to join NATO.

Auld Acquaintance. But Moscow has been more successful elsewhere. The Kremlin’s March 28 announcement that Russia and Libya would embark on a series of joint economic projects estimated at $10-11 billion marked another step in Russia’s efforts to win back friends — and markets — that it had possessed during the Soviet period. Moscow also called for the UN Security Council to review economic sanctions imposed on Libya in 1992. Russia’s aggressive policy toward Libya thus parallels that which it has pursued toward Iraq, another former Soviet client state that has run afoul of the world community, and with which Russia has reportedly also reached trade agreements totaling more than $10 billion. While the magnitude of these economic dealings may be doubted, it is clear that improved relations with Iraq and Libya are part of a broader effort to restore ties with other former Soviet clients, including Cuba, Iran, and India, and to cement friendly relations with China. Arms sales, moreover, play a significant part in Russia’s dealings with these countries, a fact which has already led to complications in the creation of a new post-Cold War arms export control regime.

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