Publication: Prism Volume: 2 Issue: 5

The Fortnight in Review

CHECHNYA: The War Escalates

On February 23, Chechens and Ingush commemorated their 1944 mass deportation by the Soviet authorities amid a new cycle of destruction and uprooting. Russian forces, enacting a district-by-district attack strategy just promulgated by the Army general staff, mounted a two-pronged offensive in which they destroyed the town of Novogroznensk and nearby villages in eastern Chechnya, and Sernovodsk and Bamut in the western part of the republic.

Military action in all these places followed a pattern which began with encirclement of the settlements and demands to local authorities and elders to expel self-defense units authorized by the June 1995 armistice agreement, or ultimatums to the units themselves to disarm and surrender. Chechen noncompliance triggered in each case indiscriminate airbombing and shelling of the towns and villages, followed by armor and infantry assault and house-to-house mop-up operations. The latter would usually net more civilians than fighters since many of these often managed to slip through the encirclement before the final assault and regrouped nearby to continue the guerrilla war. The attacks on settlements caused not only massive civilian casualties but also a new spiral of population displacement.

This new phase of the war unfolded amid an information blackout. Media correspondents, humanitarian groups, and even official rescue organizations were banned from anywhere near the areas of operations. The Russian command covered up the civilian toll and also withheld information on its own casualties, which must have been substantial. In Moscow, Russian president Boris Yeltsin and his specially empaneled commissions failed to announce any of the promised initiatives to end the war. Yet the anti-war political backlash in Russia appeared to lose steam despite continuing criticism of the war by democratic circles and a substantial part of the media.

The fortnight climaxed with a Chechen counterattack in Grozny which began on March 6 and developed successfully. Chechen detachments entered the city from three directions, briefly held parts of the capital, destroyed some Russian military installations and battled Russian troops, while Djohar Dudaev broke into the official TV programming with a speech urging the people to support the resistance. On the third day of the Chechen operation the Russian military conceded that Dudaev’s forces controlled one third of their republic’s capital.

Toward A Broader Conflagration? The escalation of military operations in Chechnya threatened to engulf adjacent areas of the North Caucasus, as the carnage in Dagestan’s village of Pervomaiskoye in January had seemed to presage. North Ossetian police units were enlisted to aid Russian border troops in guarding Chechnya and Ingushetia, and an Adygei-based brigade was ordered into action in Chechnya, prompting strong protests from that republic’s leadership. Political leaders and public organizations in Dagestan and Ingushetia expressed fears of new Pervomaiskoye-type situations as Russian troops moved through their territories in pursuit of real or mythical Chechen fighters. In Dagestan, several ethnic communities also protested against the Russian troops’ use of the republic’s territory for anti-Chechen operations and against their predatory behavior. The Baku-Stavropol gas mainline, which crosses the same area that the planed Baku-Novorosiisk pipeline for Caspian oil would have to cross, was blown up three times within this fortnight. During the week of the 1944 deportation anniversary, Russian troops mounted a massive if bungled intrusion into Ingushetia, which protested in vain against the violation of the federal constitution. Ingush president Ruslan Aushev, a paratroop general and veteran of Afghanistan, urged the international community to realize that the war in Chechnya was comparable to the one in Afghanistan and reflected the "evaporation of democracy in Russia with every passing day."


The Campaign Begins in Earnest. Russian domestic developments in the past fortnight have been dominated by preparations for June’s presidential election. Communist party leader Gennady Zyuganov, on March 4 the first officially registered candidate, launched his campaign the same day when 25 left-wing groups united behind him to form the "People’s Patriotic Bloc." In addition to the Communist party, these included the Agrarian Party led by Mikhail Lapshin. Declining to join the bloc were Working Russia–the far-left party led by Viktor Anpilov–and the nationalist Russian All-People’s Movement led by Sergei Baburin. Anpilov said he would join the coalition only if Zyuganov committed to restoring the Soviet Union. Baburin seconded that demand and added other preconditions, including a pledge to rein in the mass media.

These are the kind of extremist allies Zyuganov can do without. A potentially more serious disagreement exists, however, between the Communists and their rural cousins, the Agrarians, over the issue of land ownership. The Agrarians want land to be recognized as the property "of those who plow it," that is, the peasants (in reality, the chairmen of the collective farms). The Communists, true to the ideology they espoused in Lenin’s day, want to declare land to be the property "of the whole people" (really, the state). For the time being, the two have papered over their differences and mounted a common platform of opposition to the free sale of agricultural land–which Yeltsin legalized by decree on March 7. If Zyuganov is elected, however, the ownership issue is likely to return to the surface.

Running on the Economy. A coalition of 37 centrist groups supporting Boris Yeltsin’s candidacy held its founding conference in Moscow on March 2. It too was marked by splits, with Yegor Gaidar’s Russia’s Democratic Choice and other smaller democratic groups conspicuous by their absence. Earlier, on February 29, Viktor Chernomyrdin had presented to a cabinet meeting an upbeat account of Russia’s economic prospects which commentators described as Yeltsin’s campaign platform. Chernomyrdin reported that inflation in February had dropped below three percent for the first time since Russia began its economic reform in January 1992. The economy had not yet emerged from recession, but pockets of growth could be detected in several sectors and more would appear follow in the spring. The population would notice an upturn in living standards during the first half of the year (i.e. by the election), Chernomyrdin stressed.

The fact that inflation is continuing to fall is good news for Russian citizens on low incomes, for whom financial stabilization has an especially beneficial effect, yet the experience in post-Communist eastern Europe suggests that this may not be enough to guarantee Yeltsin’s re-election. Voters go to the polls with more than their pocketbooks in mind. Poland’s economy began to recover from the shock of market reform in late 1992, yet a left-wing government was elected in 1993. Today, Poland boasts Europe’s most dynamic economy (Albania excepted), yet voters replaced Lech Walesa with a former Communist in the recent presidential election. December’s parliamentary elections showed how angry many Russian citizens feel about the hardships they have suffered. They are unlikely to be mollified in the few months remaining before election day.

Seeking the Real Zyuganov. Meanwhile, two of Russia’s sharpest commentators warned readers not to judge Zyuganov by his election slogans. Writing in Obshchaya gazeta (No. 8, February 1996), Andrei Fadin argued that "the leaders of the Communist party are in no way revolutionaries. Many of them long ago established close ties with major banks and industrial groups, inside and outside the country." Once president, Zyuganov will need the support of a broad range of social and political groups, including regional and financial elites and even the IMF, and he will be smart enough to know that repression and expropriation are not the way to win it. It is the most vulnerable social groups, who will vote for Zyuganov in the expectation that he will improve their lives, who will be the most disappointed, Fadin concluded.

Pavel Voshchanov, writing in Komsomolskaya pravda (February 28), pointed to potential fault lines in the Communist party and argued, "The closer we get to the elections, the broader the political spectrum of the Communist candidate will become." Voshchanov is pessimistic about the final outcome. He believes Zyuganov’s blueprint for Russia is the Chinese model of market economy combined with single-party rule. "This is not just a question of personalities," he concludes. "For the first time in Russia’s convoluted history, we are actually being offered a choice of system."


Between Partnership and Confrontation. Relations between Russia and her Western neighbors continued over the past fortnight to run on two distinguishable tracks, one reflecting cooperation and the halting integration of Moscow into the Western world, the other signifying sharpening tensions between those same players on a number of specific issues. The first track was best exemplified in recent weeks by Russia’s long-awaited ascension to membership in the Council of Europe. But bitter divisions over NATO enlargement showed few signs of abating, and friendly relations were further tested by potential trade wars between Russia and both the EU and the U.S., and by Moscow’s condemnation of U.S. sanctions against Cuba.

Russia’s formal induction into the Council of Europe February 28 brought to a close a torturous battle for membership that had nearly foundered on revulsion over Russia’s brutal campaign in Chechnya. But although the admission was proclaimed by a Russian presidential spokesman as a testament to the "significance of democratic change" in Russia, many observers in Russia and Europe remained anxious over the Kremlin’s actions in Chechnya and its spotty commitment to democratic reform. Russian human rights champion Sergei Kovalev summed up their feelings with the warning that "if the Council turns a blind eye to Russia, for example, by acting passively on Chechnya, then nothing good will come of it."

Trading Punches. Only a day after Russia’s admission into the Council of Europe a government announcement that import tariffs would be raised by up to 20 percent threatened to plunge Russia and the EU into a trade war. The EU’s executive commission warned Moscow March 1 that such an action might impede Russia’s entry into the World Trade Organization and could complicate plans for the creation by 1998 of an EU-Russia free trade area. Protectionism in Moscow also raised tensions with the U.S. following a Russian government announcement February 26 that threatened a ban on the import of U.S. poultry products. An angry Washington threatened retaliation, and a trade war was averted only on March 5 ,when the U.S. received assurances from Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin that the ban would not be implemented.

In Search of Allies. The past fortnight witnessed the beginning of an effort by Russian foreign minister Yevgeny Primakov to advance Russian interests in Eastern Europe by dissuading leaders there from pursuing NATO membership. "We would like to prove that absolutely nothing endangers these states," Primakov said February 24, "and that they may be perfectly safe not joining any alliances." But his efforts got off to an inauspicious start in Bratislava February 29 when Slovak leaders proclaimed their determination to join the Western alliance, despite Primakov’s admonitions. The script ran much the same way during an early March visit to Moscow by Czech foreign minister Josef Zieleniec. Primakov brandished the stick–warning that the deployment of NATO nuclear warheads on Czech territory would be interpreted by Moscow as an anti-Russian act–but emphasized the carrot, lauding positive developments in bilateral relations and intimating that perhaps a non-NATO alternative might be found that would satisfy Czech security interests without threatening Russia’s. Zieleniec’s reaffirmation of Prague’s intention to join NATO is a sentiment that Primakov is likely to hear several more times as he embarks later in March for visits to both Poland and Hungary.

Backing Havana. Perhaps the sharpest diplomatic confrontation of the past fortnight occurred between Washington and Moscow over strong U.S. reaction to the downing February 24 of two U.S. civilian planes by Cuban fighters. Four days later President Boris Yeltsin praised a UN Security Council statement on the incident that condemned Cuba in terms milder than had been sought by the U.S. A subsequent U.S. Congress bill toughening American economic sanctions against Cuba elicited an especially strong response from Moscow. The Russian Foreign Ministry characterized the bill as "contradictory to international law," and an "infringement on the legitimate interests of sovereign states." The ministry also emphasized that Russia would "widen trade and economic cooperation" with Cuba.


Estonian Orthodox believers regained church independence and the old canonical ties to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, shaking off the Moscow Patriarchate’s jurisdiction. Despite the small size of the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church, the event reverberated worldwide as an irate Russian Orthodox Church suspended relations with Constantinople, and Patriarch Aleksy II blamed the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartolomeos I for the resulting split in world Orthodoxy. Upon Aleksy’s urgent appeal, Boris Yeltsin and Russia’s Foreign Ministry officially protested to the Estonian state against its recognition of the EAOC’s status as it existed prior to the Soviet occupation, as opposed to recognition of the local branch of the Moscow church introduced in Estonia with that occupation.

Lithuania for its part, together with its neighbor Poland, faced down a proposal by Boris Yeltsin for a transit corridor across their territories to Koenigsberg/Kaliningrad, Russia’s militarized exclave on the Baltic Sea. The Lithuanian and Polish governments turned down the idea on security, economic, and ecological grounds. Russia’s overland links with the exclave have since 1992 been governed by arrangements with Lithuania. Yeltsin’s proposal coincided with a prescheduled meeting in Vilnius of the Lithuanian and Polish presidents, Algirdas Brazauskas and Aleksander Kwasniewski. The presidents and their foreign and defense ministers discussed a wide range of military and political measures to promote common security.


The two western Slavic states found themselves facing advances from Russia’s main presidential contenders. Boris Yeltsin and Belarus president Aleksandr Lukashenko discussed "reintegration" of their countries at a meeting in Kremlin, and instructed their respective governments to draft within a month a document on the principles and main directions of that reintegration. Some officials in Moscow and Minsk suggested that the document would lay the basis of a confederation of the two states and that Kazakhstan may be invited to join such a confederation. Yeltsin stressed the "military, military-political, and military technical" dimensions of Russia-Belarus integration, in addition to its economic aspect; and Defense Minister Pavel Grachev scheduled an early meeting of the two countries’ top brass to strengthen military ties. To Lukashenko’s delight, Yeltsin agreed to writing off mutual financial debts and claims, in a deal which favors Belarus under the appearance of reciprocity. In Minsk, Lukashenko loyalists let it be known that the president intends to propose constitutional revisions and to submit them to a national referendum, fueling suspicions that a sellout of sovereignty is being planned. Lukashenko’s opponents, however, hold strong positions in parliament and may yet be able to forestall such a move.

In Kiev it was Yeltsin’s Communist rivals who carried the banner of reintegration with Russia. Presidential hopeful Gennady Zyuganov, Duma chairman Gennady Seleznev, and other Communist politicians conferred with Ukraine’s Socialist and Communist leaders, also seeking to reassure the public that Russia’s Communists would respect Ukrainian independence if they win the Russian presidency and that any reintegration would be purely voluntary. Yet Zyuganov and his companions mixed the signals by claiming that Ukraine had been "fully sovereign in the USSR" under the rule of "its own Politburo" and with "its own" UN seat. Ukrainian leftists found common ground with Zyuganov’s group in criticizing Yeltsin’s and Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma’s reforms; but some of them including the socialist chairman of parliament, Oleksandr Moroz stood up for Ukrainian national interests on disputed issues, as did Prime Minister Yevhen Marchuk in a last-minute meeting with the Russian group.

Among those disputed issues, the partition of the Black Sea Fleet registered progress. The first stage of that partition, involving the ships and other movable assets, approached its completion. Yeltsin appointed Vice Admiral Viktor Kravchenko as commander of the fleet’s Russian share–in effect sealing the partition because Kravchenko is the first commander responsible for Russia’s share only. Ukraine’s political and military leaders welcomed the choice of Kravchenko, who is considered a conciliatory figure sharply in contrast to his predecessor Admiral Eduard Baltin. Nevertheless Russian-Ukrainian discussions on the second stage of the partition, focusing on the coastal infrastructure, evidenced the familiar sharp differences over the Russian fleet’s status on Ukrainian territory and the terms of its basing, including basing arrangements in Sevastopol. The differences appeared too deep to be resolved by the early April date tentatively set for Yeltsin’s long-delayed official visit to Ukraine. Yeltsin has thus far conditioned that visit on the prior resolution of disputes over the fleet; but he may yet give up that condition should he conclude that a visit to Ukraine would boost his bid for re-election.


The oft-violated ceasefire in Tajikistan and the mandate of the joint monitoring commission both expired February 26 and were not renewed. That breakdown followed the February 17 collapse of the UN-mediated inter-Tajik political talks. Dushanbe authorities and Moscow demanded an unconditional resumption of the talks and an open-ended extension of the for the talks’ duration. That arrangement would have amounted to immunity for Dushanbe while removing any incentive for it to negotiate toward power-sharing with the United Islamic Opposition. To advance that goal, UTO called for a three-month, renewable extension of the ceasefire, linked to an exchange of prisoners and codification of its recent advances in Tavildara. UTO’s political proposals centered on the formation of a national conciliation body vested with real powers to pave the way toward free elections. Dushanbe would only accept a largely symbolic and powerless forum of the peoples of Tajikistan and a special session of the Tajik parliament at which opposition leaders would be invited to speak. With UN mediators unable to bridge the differences, the Tajik sides continued to observe a de facto and tenuous ceasefire. The situation gave Moscow an opportunity to officially abandon the January 19 CIS summit’s resolution on a possible withdrawal of Russian and CIS "peacekeeping" troops by July.


"The Fortnight in Review" is prepared by Senior Analysts Elizabeth Teague

(Russia), Stephen Foye (Security and Foreign Policy), and Vladimir Socor

(Non-Russian republics).