Publication: Prism Volume: 2 Issue: 4

The Fortnight in Review

In Russia, incumbent President Boris Yeltsin and Communist party hopeful Gennady Zyuganov chose the same day–February 15–to announce their intentions to run for election. The presidential election, due in June, dominated events over the past two weeks not only within Russia but also in Russia’s relationship with the West and with the countries on its periphery.

RUSSIA AND THE WEST: Friendly Meetings, Divisive Undercurrents

High-profile meetings between Russian and western leaders were the principal features of foreign policy over the past two weeks, as the U.S. secretary of state met with his Russian counterpart in Helsinki and the French prime minister and the German chancellor travelled to Moscow. Words of friendship and support for President Yeltsin were the order of the day, particularly from the European leaders. Yet a sharp divergence of views on NATO enlargement continued to divide Moscow and the West. Behind the amicable rhetoric caught by the television cameras, a number of other irritants and potential irritants complicated relations. Among these were the Russian parliament’s hesitancy to ratify the START II Treaty.

Primakov Pleases Christopher. The first-ever meeting between U.S. secretary of state Warren Christopher and Russian foreign minister Yevgeny Primakov took place in Helsinki February 9-10, and was described by both sides as “productive” and “businesslike.” Its most concrete result was an informal agreement on holding regular confidence-building meetings, particularly on regional issues. As expected, Primakov distanced himself during the meeting from his ostensibly “pro-western” predecessor, Andrei Kozyrev, by emphasising Moscow’s independent foreign policy interests and insisting that any partnership with Washington be an “equal” one. U.S. participants were nevertheless said to be pleased by Primakov’s pragmatism and preparation, and Christopher declared that the two had gotten off “to a good start.”

Juppe Boosts Yeltsin. Following a meeting in Bonn with Chancellor Helmut Kohl, which was devoted to harmonising French and German policies toward Russia, French prime minister Alain Juppe arrived in Moscow February 14 for three days of talks with Russian leaders. Juppe and Russian prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin formally established a joint commission for promoting economic ties–modelled on the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission. Juppe offered Russia up to $800 million in credits; and French businessmen accompanying the prime minister signed contracts in Tatarstan worth some $50 million.

Paris has emerged as a leader in the effort to integrate Russia into the West, and the broader purpose of Juppe’s visit was to promote that goal. Interviewed just before he left Moscow, Juppe urged Russians to vote for Yeltsin and said that Russia’s anxieties over NATO enlargement were misplaced. He described enlargement as a natural process of European integration and said it should be paralleled by closer relations between Russia and both NATO and the European Union. He also pledged to ensure Russia’s full inclusion in such multilateral bodies as the G-7 and World Trade Organization.

Kohl Goes Further. Similar themes dominated Chancellor Kohl’s visit to Moscow, which began February 18. Even more than Juppe, who did not meet the Russian president, Kohl emphasized his faith in Yeltsin personally and stopped just short of publicly endorsing him for president. Kohl suggested that an election victory by Communist party leader Zyuganov would cause more problems for Bonn than would a victory by Yeltsin, “a proven friend of Germany.” While in Moscow, Kohl did not meet with any of Yeltsin’s rivals for the presidency. He dismissed as “stupid” proposals to discontinue aid to Russia and said that a failure to help Moscow would cause events in Russia to take a turn for the worse.

The IMF Rolls the Dice. On February 22, during a four-day visit to Moscow, IMF director Michel Camdessus announced that the International Monetary Fund had approved Russia’s request for a $10 billion dollar three-year loan. The loan is important to Russia as a source of finance for the putative transformation process, and as a sign of continued western confidence in Russian economic prospects. Whether Russia will meet the IMF’s conditions on inflation levels, the budget deficit, and on the removal of export tariffs is open to question.

RUSSIA AND THE WEST: Biting the Hand

Spoilsports. Other prickly developments ran counter to the West’s ostentatious good will. On the eve of the Primakov-Christopher meeting, Defense Minister Pavel Grachev issued an especially belligerent denunciation of the western alliance. Then Russian and western diplomats jousted over the arrest by Bosnian authorities of two Bosnian Serb officers. Finally, Russia’s Atomic Energy Ministry warned February 15 that Moscow would launch missile attacks on tactical nuclear missile sites in eastern Europe if these countries joined NATO and stationed such weaponry on their territories.

Deals. A series of blockbuster trade agreements also left western leaders uneasy. An earlier $2 billion agreement to sell China up to 48 high performance SU-27 fighter jets, and licenses for domestic production, suggested a new aggressiveness in Russian arms sales efforts. Then a February 14 announcement said that military-related exports to Iran might grow to $4 billion over the next decade. On February 19 a Russian government official seemed to confirm earlier reports that Russia had concluded energy deals worth some $10 billion with Baghdad, to be launched upon the lifting of UN sanctions. Finally, Moscow announced February 20 that military cooperation with India would more than double this year, to $3.5 billion, and that cooperation through the end of the century could amount to $7-$8 billion. Such deals could bring an infusion of cash into the Russian defense industrial sector at a time when the Russian government is already considering increased defense procurement spending. The sales also suggest an evolving realignment of Russian foreign policy back toward some of those countries with which Moscow was allied during the Soviet period.


The Unloved Candidate: Flowing Promises, Rolling Heads. The influence of Russia’s upcoming presidential election was strongly felt at home, where Yeltsin and Communist party leader Zyuganov emerged in opinion polls as the leading candidates for the June election. Yeltsin’s popularity is at an all-time low: at present, only former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev and former Russian prime minister Yegor Gaidar rank lower in the public’s affections. Yeltsin tried to appease the population with promises that all wage arrears would be paid in full to millions of workers by March, and that all those guilty of corruption and mismanagement would be dismissed from their posts.

One of the first heads to roll was that of Oleg Poptsov, once a close Yeltsin ally, who since 1990 had headed Russia’s second state-run television channel, RTR. Dismissing Poptsov, Yeltsin accused RTR of reporting nothing but bad news and of being fixated on atrocities by federal forces in Chechnya. The sacking sparked fears of efforts to muzzle the press.

Accentuating the Negative. The pros and cons of privatization figure to be a key issue in the presidential campaign. The past fortnight saw the Duma create a special committee to examine the “negative consequences” of the second, or cash, phase of privatization. This reflected widespread concern over the “loans for shares” auctions held late last year in which the state transferred large blocks of shares in some of Russia’s largest enterprises. Conducted with minimum transparency, these were widely believed to be insider deals.

The Minister of Internal Affairs, General Anatoly Kulikov, provoked controversy when he called for a sweeping program of nationalization to bring Russia’s commercial banks under state control and to provide additional funding for the security services. His ideas were rejected by other government members, but the threat of nationalization was heard again when a leading Communist revealed his party’s plans to nationalize 200 of Russia’s largest enterprises following the victory that his party is confident of winning in June. But skeptics pointed out that even if a Communist-led government tried in the first flush of electoral enthusiasm to take the country back to the past, centralized control of the economy would fail, as it had before, to improve living standards. In this view, popular pressure would soon mount for a return to more efficient ways of managing the economy.

The Bloody Chechnya Problem. After he announced his candidacy, Yeltsin promised repeatedly to seek a conclusive military victory in Chechnya before the presidential election. He indicated that Russian troops would adopt a new strategy of breaking up the resistance forces into small groups of 40 to 50 and destroying or seizing them one by one–a concept closely paralleling the district-by-district attack strategy which Russia’s commander in chief in Chechnya recently attributed to the general staff.

Implicitly ruling out a negotiated solution, Yeltsin vowed to have Djohar Dudaev and other “bandit” Chechen leaders captured and shot. Yeltsin’s statements, and accompanying ones from top military and security officials, pre-empted recommendations from the two high-level commissions which the president himself had tasked only a week before to consider the full range of options and to formulate within two weeks a policy on Chechnya.

There were other indications that the two presidential commissions were of little relevance to the shaping of policy. Their chairmen–Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and presidential adviser Emil Pain–spent the better part of their allotted two weeks organizing the commissions and staffing them with a motley collection of cultural and civic laymen alongside seasoned practitioners of power. Still, at the time of their creation the commissions enabled Yeltsin and his team to deflect some of the political criticism, and to assure visiting foreign leaders–notably Chancellor Kohl and Prime Minister Juppe–that Yeltsin was seeking a political solution to the war.

The president has said more than once that his re-election will depend on an early end of the war. His most recent statements indicate that Yeltsin’s most belligerent advisers have persuaded him that the preferred means to that end is to pursue a quick and decisive military victory regardless of its cost in blood.

It was thus not surprising that in Chechnya Russian forces pursued the war at mounting cost in lives on both sides. As was pointed out by General Boris Gromov, the last commander of Soviet troops in Afghanistan, the army’s casualty rate in Chechnya has been substantially higher than it was in Afghanistan.

In one of the war’s largest operations, from February 16-21, the army captured the town of Novogroznensky, temporary site of the Chechen general staff. Amid a news blackout similar to that imposed in December in Gudermes, Novogrozensky was largely destroyed, along with an undetermined number of civilians trapped in the town. The action dealt a blow to the idea of a negotiated solution because, among other reasons, Novogrozensky had been a center of informal Russian-Chechen contacts and the headquarters of Aslan Maskhadov, the principal Chechen representative at the abortive Russian-Chechen negotiations.

In Grozny, federal troops began razing the presidential building, which the earlier Russian air bombing had left heavily damaged but still standing. Ludicrously, the reason given was concern for the safety of passers-by who might be hurt by falling debris. Not mentioned was the fact that the building had become a focus of pro-independence and pro-Dudaev demonstrations and, even in its dilapidated condition, a symbol of Chechen defiance.

RUSSIA AND ITS NEIGHBORS: Risk Reduction Thwarted

As for Russia’s relations with its neighbors, the fortnight witnessed the unraveling of the risk-reduction policies which Russia had solemnly launched at the January 19 CIS summit. As Chairman of that meeting, Boris Yeltsin announced a number of initiatives relating to Russia’s “peacekeeping” operations. The measures sought to minimize the risk of Russia’s military being caught up in the eruption of violent conflict at time when its armed forces and state budget are barely coping with the war in Chechnya. The Kremlin is also anxious to avoid, especially during Yeltsin’s re-election campaign, adding military casualties to those already incurred in Chechnya.

During the fortnight the Kremlin sought to implement the risk-reduction measures, and possibly even disengage its “peacekeeping” troops from the three countries–Moldova, Georgia, and Tajikistan–where they are stationed. Yet these attempts were quickly rendered irrelevant by Moscow’s own unwillingness to jeopardize the fundamental interests of its regional clients.

Wading Deeper into the Moldovan Mire. Any comfort Moldova may have derived from the CIS summit must have dissipated during this past fortnight. In Moscow, the presidents of Russia, Ukraine, and Moldova called for Transdniester autonomy within an integral and indivisible Moldova – following which Transdniester did finally resume negotiations with Chisinau. However Tiraspol renewed its demand for full-fledged statehood and added demands that Moldova immediately accept a Transdniester currency and Transdniester customs.

Russia in its dual capacity as mediator and peacekeeper countenanced this defiance. The Russian government in fact kept up pressure on Chisinau to transfer the peacekeeping mandate from Russia’s token peacekeeping units to its Operational Group of Forces as a means of legalizing the latter’s presence in Moldova. By demanding basing rights, Moscow once again repudiated the 1994 agreement with Moldova to withdraw the troops.

The Russian Duma, which opposes the government on numerous issues, strengthened its hand on this one. By a vote of 301 to 4, it adopted a resolution urging the government to keep Russian forces in Moldova because of their “stabilizing role.” The resolution also attempted to ensure Transdniester’s participation in any international talks on the settlement of the conflict.

The Duma’s action breached its pledge to the Council of Europe to ratify the Russian-Moldovan agreement on troop withdrawal and ensure its implementation. That pledge had been given barely two weeks earlier as one of the conditions for Russia’s admission to the Council. But the vote in Moscow indicated that the Duma has no intention of meeting that requirement.

Stoking the Abkhaz. Georgia was equally frustrated in its efforts to capitalize on the CIS summit’s support for economic sanctions against Abkhazia and for Tbilisi’s proposals to turn Russia’s “peacekeeping” troops into upholders of Georgian sovereignty. Instead, Russia’s Foreign Ministry reinterpreted the sanctions as merely optional, and the Russian Duma’s pro-Abkhaz majority required parliamentary ratification of any sanctions or peacekeeping mandate change.

From January 30 through February 16, Russia’s foreign and defense ministers, other senior government officials, and Duma leaders consorted in Moscow with Abkhaz leaders. The Duma deputies in particular fortified the Abkhaz delegates’ intransigence.

The Abkhaz maintained their demand for sovereign equality with Georgia in a treaty-based relationship, merely relabeling the intended relationship “federative union” instead of “confederation.” They also demanded that Georgia and Abkhazia join the CIS customs union as a condition of the peace settlement. Tbilisi countered with its no less familiar offer of a far-reaching devolution of powers to an Abkhaz republic within a federalized Georgia.

Moscow and Tbilisi also revealed deep differences over the renewal of the Russian “peacekeeping” contingent’s mandate in the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict zone. That contingent, some 3,000 strong, is only a small part of Russia’s nearly 20,000 troops in Georgia. Tbilisi sought an expansion of the peacekeeping operation’s area to the whole of Abkhazia, not just the zone separating Abkhaz and Georgian forces; and enlargement of its mission to include law enforcement in Abkhazia, repatriation of Georgian refugees, disarmament of “unlawful” Abkhaz forces, and reopening of transport arteries between Russia and the Transcaucasus via Abkhazia.

Russia’s Defense Ministry publicly opposed those terms on the grounds that they would necessitate additional troops and funding, require Abkhaz consent and UN Security Council approval, and risk involving Russia’s peacekeeping troops in a conflict with the Abkhazians.

Backing Down on Tajikistan. The government of Tajikistan was unfazed by Moscow’s threats at the CIS summit to withdraw “peacekeeping” troops by July unless Dushanbe offered some concessions to the opposition. Dushanbe knows full well that Russia and the three Central Asian governments which issued those warnings at the CIS summit have no real alternative to supporting the incumbent Tajik government. Consequently the government remained adamant on the question of power sharing, the main stumbling block in the negotiations with the opposition.

The fifth round of those negotiations was suspended on February 17. Dushanbe’s new foreign minister and chief negotiator, Talbak Nazarov, is presumed to be a moderate. However he followed his “intransigent” predecessor in insisting that Tajikistan’s existing constitution and parliament are the sole acceptable framework for any political settlement of the conflict. The government delegation merely offered to allow opposition leaders to address the Dushanbe parliament by March; agreed to the formation of a “congress of the peoples of Tajikistan” to discuss the country’s problems; and consented to permit activities of political parties. But the opposition demanded the formation of a national conciliation council endowed with real legislative and executive powers to prepare fresh elections. Nor could the delegations agree on extending the cease-fire.

The Kremlin then backed away from its demand for meaningful concessions to the Tajik opposition. Senior Russian Foreign and Defense Ministry officials said the Tajik government’s token concessions were sufficient, and the opposition’s demands for meaningful concessions were unacceptable. Like Dushanbe, Moscow insisted that Tajikistan’s existing parliament and constitution were the sole acceptable framework for a settlement. And, contrary to the recent warnings, senior Russian government officials insisted that peacekeeping troops must remain in Tajikistan to support the government.

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