RUSSIA: POLITICS AS USUAL
The fortnight in Russian politics was, as usual, enough to make the spectator seasick. It began with President Boris Yeltsin mounting one of his time-honored comebacks against his enemies, but ended with the once-loyal leaders of Russia’s regions turning the tables on him yet again.
Perhaps the first sign that the Russian head of state had started his comeback was a warning from the Federal Security Service (FSB), an agency safely in the hands of Kremlin loyalist Vladimir Putin, that the State Duma commission which had drawn up articles of impeachment against Yeltsin had made “serious mistakes of a legal nature” in its findings. Russian media, meanwhile, churned out a host of possible responses by Yeltsin to the Duma if it voted for impeachment. These ranged from the president firing the two leftist deputy prime ministers in Yevgeny Primakov’s cabinet–Gennady Kulik and Yuri Maslyukov–up to firing Primakov himself, dissolving the Duma and announcing new elections, and even banning the opposition Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF).
All of these contingency plans were floated to the press by myriad unnamed high-level Kremlin sources, and it is likely that the leaks were as much part of a psychological warfare campaign as genuine statements of intent. Some observers, however, said the fact that Yeltsin was busily replacing officials in such “power” ministries as the Federal Security Service (FSB), the Interior Ministry and the General Prosecutor’s Office suggested he had not ruled out the possibility of a step as radical as emergency rule.
The main target of the Kremlin’s wrath, it appears, continues to be Primakov. According to one widely-reported rumor, Yeltsin and others in the Kremlin inner circle were particularly livid over a meeting the premier had with opposition leaders in the Duma. During that meeting Primakov–in an effort to convince them not to proceed with impeachment–allegedly told the opposition leaders: “I don’t think we need it now.”
It is not clear whether the Kremlin was made angrier by the use of the word “we” or the word “now.” At any rate, the Kremlin’s growing dissatisfaction with the cabinet was underscored by the proliferation of names floated as possible cabinet replacements. These ranged from such hardy perennials as Anatoly Chubais and Viktor Chernomyrdin to Yuri Luzhkov and Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky–two of the last remaining political players who have not graced a Yeltsin cabinet–to such exotica as former Central Bank Chairman Sergei Dubinin and his ex-deputy, Sergei Aleksashenko.
It was Chernomyrdin, however, who ended up getting a nod, of sorts: Yeltsin appointed the former prime minister his special envoy on the Balkans crisis (see below). The appointment was clearly aimed at humiliating Primakov, a veteran of Russia’s foreign policy establishment. The move, perhaps, was revenge also for Primakov’s apparent attempt to replace the ailing head of state at the funeral of Jordan’s King Hussein earlier this year. Yeltsin, it is said, never forgets such slights.
Primakov, meanwhile, seemed to be buckling under the blows. Literally. He canceled various foreign trips due to extreme back pain, leading some observers to postulate that he feared losing his job while abroad. In another sign that he was feeling the pressure, the premier upbraided his cabinet for failing to implement policies and strongly hinted that heads could roll.
But if Yeltsin again seemed on top of his game, the atmosphere quickly changed when the Federation Council, the upper house of parliament, took up for a second time a request by Yuri Skuratov, the prosecutor general whom Yeltsin suspended earlier this month, to accept his resignation. The regional leaders in the council had earlier this year voted against Skuratov’s resignation. But it was expected that they would, this time, vote to oust the controversial top prosecutor, who was himself under investigation for abusing his office and consorting with call-girls. Most observers had already written off the vote as a certain presidential victory. But it blew up in the Kremlin’s face: A majority of council members again voted not to accept Skuratov’s resignation, even after Yeltsin had promised them increased autonomy and other privileges.
While the Kremlin put the best face on it, the vote was a clear challenge to Yeltsin, particularly since Skuratov insisted that he had a list of top officials, former and current, with money in Swiss bank accounts. These, according to rumors, include Yeltsin’s inner circle and possibly even members of his family.
Thus, with the Duma set to take up impeachment in mid-May, Russia entered spring with the distinct smell of confrontation in the air.
KOSOVO: A DEADEND FOR RUSSIAN DIPLOMACY?
Amid the political hubbub in Moscow, Russia’s political elite continued its furious rhetorical assault on NATO military actions in the Balkans. But Russian politicians and diplomats were singularly unable to back up their strong words with a set of workable policies that might either promote a diplomatic solution of the Kosovo crisis or help mend fences between Russia and the West. Moscow’s failure to act effectively appeared to be the result in large part of the degree to which the Kosovo issue has become politicized in Russia. The Kremlin’s unwillingness to rebuff hardline communists and nationalists–who have defined Russia’s interests solely in terms of defending the Serbs–has left the government little real room for maneuver at home or abroad. That same unqualified support for Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, moreover, has left Russia increasingly isolated on the international stage. Manipulated by Belgrade and at odds with the West, Russian policy vis-a-vis the Balkans appeared in many way over the past fortnight to have led Moscow to a dead-end.
IN SEARCH OF A POLICY
All of Russia’s diplomatic shortcomings with regard to the Balkans conflict seem to have been reflected in President Boris Yeltsin’s decision on April 14 to name former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin as Russia’s special envoy for Kosovo. The move was immediately welcomed in the West, where Chernomyrdin is a known and–relatively speaking at least–a trusted quantity. Chernomyrdin was also portrayed as a potentially effective envoy insofar as he is reported to be on good terms with the ruling circles in Belgrade.
But whatever Chernomyrdin’s personal qualifications, his appointment failed to rectify the single most glaring shortcoming in Russia’s diplomatic dealings with the Kosovo issue: the fact that Moscow still lacks any coherent or workable set of proposals which might promote a settlement of the Balkans conflict. Indeed, in the days that followed his appointment, Chernomyrdin was reported to have met with a host of foreign and Russian officials in order to begin formulating new proposals aimed at promoting a Kosovo settlement. Those proposals were to have been presented at a Kremlin meeting on April 19.
When the meeting took place, however, it was reported to have lasted a scant half hour, and there was no evidence afterward that the country’s political leadership had moved beyond its previous tired approach to the Kosovo crisis. That approach might be summed up in the meaningless phrase that the crisis must be resolved “by political means.” There was also nothing to suggest that Moscow had moved from its insistence that any settlement of the Kosovo conflict must begin with a halt to the NATO bombing campaign in Yugoslavia. For the West, that condition is a non-starter.
The appointment of Chernomyrdin, moreover, appeared only to raise new questions about the manner in which Russian policy toward Kosovo is being formulated. That was true because the Chernomyrdin appointment appeared to be directed not so much at resolving the Kosovo crisis as at further strengthening President Boris Yeltsin’s hand in his mounting political battle with Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov. The appointment also appeared to muddy the waters with regard to who was actually in charge of policy toward Kosovo. The Foreign Ministry rushed in to declare that it remained the coordinator of policy in this area, and Yeltsin too said that Chernomyrdin would only “help” the Foreign Ministry. But few in Moscow took such assertions at face value.
A NATO NO-SHOW Having spent so much energy denouncing the West for NATO airstrikes on Yugoslavia, Russia also felt itself compelled on April 21 to announce that it would boycott NATO’s fiftieth anniversary summit. The decision was not completely unexpected. Since the start of NATO airstrikes on Yugoslavia Moscow has moved to sever its ties to the Western alliance. It has also cut military-to-military contacts with a number of NATO member states.
The decision to forego participation at the summit nevertheless meant that Moscow would be one of the few European and former Soviet states not represented at the Washington event. Russia’s absence not only underscored the country’s growing isolation, but left it out of discussions on the Kosovo crisis which were expected to dominate at the summit. Moscow did manage to put itself back in the headlines on the eve of the summit when Chernomyrdin announced that he had won some concessions from Milosevic during a day of talk in Belgrade. But Western leaders reacted warily to the announcement. Based on experience, they were skeptical that Chernomyrdin had brokered an agreement that would be acceptable to the West.
BELARUS, ARMENIA, TAJIKISTAN: RUSSIA’S ALLIES IN THE CIS
As this issue goes to press, Russian Defense Minister Marshal Igor Sergeev is discussing with President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in Belarus a set of measures to advance bilateral military cooperation. The agenda includes a Russian plan to create a “Russian-Belarusan regional group of forces.” Such an arrangement, if implemented, would in effect place selected Belarusan units under Russian command and establish a functioning military alliance of the two countries. While Belarus does not host Russian forces on its territory, the Russia-Belarus Union Treaty includes a vaguely worded clause on mutual military assistance against aggression. Belarus is one of three CIS member countries that maintain ties of military cooperation with Russia. The other two, Armenia and Tajikistan, have advanced–or been drawn–farther along that path. This fortnight witnessed a consolidation of Russia’s military presence in those two countries.
RUSSIAN-ARMENIAN AIR DEFENSE SYSTEM INAUGURATED
On April 15, Russia and Armenia commissioned the command post of their joint air defense system. The event signifies that the system itself has become operational. Russia’s Air Force commander in chief, Colonel-General Anatoly Kornukov, and Armenia’s chief of the General Staff, Lieutenant-General Mikael Harutiunian, presided over the inauguration of the command post situated in a bunker on the Russian base at Chobankara, southwest of Yerevan. The command post will, on a permanent basis, supply operational information to a command center in the Russian city of Rostov-na-Donu, whence the information will be relayed to Russia’s Air Defense headquarters in the Moscow region. As of that day, “Russia and Armenia jointly guard Armenia’s airspace,” Kornukov declared.
Composed of Russian and Armenian interceptor aircraft, surface-to-air missiles and their radars, the “joint” system mainly relies on Russian-owned, Russian- operated MiG-29 aircraft and S-300 missiles, whose deployment in Armenia began recently and is set to continue. A first batch of five MiG-29s arrived in Armenia in December 1998, a second batch of five arrived in February 1999 and a third batch of eight is due to arrive shortly. Last December, Russia deployed in Armenia a first batch of five MiG-29s. Last week, officials of both countries hinted that the number of the MiG-29s in Armenia had doubled in the meantime; and Kornukov announced that a further eight planes of the same type are due soon to arrive from Russia. Those already deployed are scheduled to begin regular patrol duty on April 22 under Kornukov’s supervision. The delivery of S-300 missiles began in February at the Gyumri airbase in northwestern Armenia. The first batteries are believed to have been installed by now.
CIS FIGLEAF MAINTAINED
Russian officials punctiliously refer to the Russian-Armenian air defense system as a “joint” one. The claim is misleading because Armenia’s role is essentially that of host country to a Russian system. Moscow itself concedes that point occasionally by way of assuring Azerbaijan that the system would not and could not be used by Armenian forces in the event of Armenian-Azerbaijani hostilities. The Russian side, moreover, depicts the “joint” Russian-Armenian air defense system as authorized by CIS documents and governed by CIS decisions. In practice, however, the system looks like a forward-based component of Russia’s armed forces, sited in Armenia, and whose bilateral aspect is essentially limited to the arrangements on basing rights.
Russia, Belarus, Armenia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are parties to the CIS joint air defense system. Once every year units of those five countries hold a joint combat exercise of relatively modest scope at the Ashuluk training range in Russia’s Astrakhan region. In practice, the CIS joint air defense system consists of bilateral arrangements between Russia and each participating country. The Russian-Armenian program is the most advanced to date. The creation of the Russian-Armenian air defense system represents a corollary of the bilateral alliance treaty, signed in 1997 by the two presidents. The treaty has enabled Russia to shore up its military presence in the South Caucasus and to induce a dangerous polarization of the region by exploiting Armenia’s historic sense of insecurity. The military relationship with Russia, alienating as it does Armenia from its neighbors, can exacerbate that sense of insecurity and lead to closer reliance on Russia–a vicious circle in which Moscow ultimately wins and Armenia ultimately loses.
RUSSIA OBTAINS MILITARY BASING RIGHTS IN TAJIKISTAN
Presidents Boris Yeltsin of Russia and Imomali Rahmonov of Tajikistan signed on April 16 in the Kremlin a Treaty on Allied Cooperation into the Twenty-First Century. On the same day the defense ministers, Marshal Igor Sergeev and Colonel-General Sherali Hairulloev, signed a Treaty on the Status and Conditions of the Stationing of Russian Military Bases in Tajikistan.
The political treaty, a largely declarative document, cites the 1992 CIS Collective Security Treaty and the 1993 Russian-Tajik Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance as forming the basis of bilateral relations. The 1993 treaty had already included provisions which could be interpreted as a military alliance, potentially licensing Russian intervention. The new treaty adds an obligation to coordinate actions on the diplomatic arena and in international forums. It also commits the sides to protecting the rights of Russians in Tajikistan and of Tajiks in Russia. The nascent Slavic University in Dushanbe rates a special mention in the treaty. The document calls for “preserving the spiritual and cultural closeness of the two peoples”–a postulate that would take many Russians and Tajiks by surprise.
The military treaty confers basing rights on Russia’s 201st motor-rifle division and some additional Russian Army units. The troops will be stationed in the Dushanbe-Kulob-Kurgontepa triangle. Russia will fully bear the costs of maintaining the bases and troops. The treaty is valid for a 10-year period and can be prolonged by mutual consent.
Kulob in the south-west is the native area of Rahmonov and his relatively small “Kulob clan,” which dominates the government in Dushanbe, although its real writ does not extend much beyond the capital and the Kulob area itself. Kurgontepa is situated between Kulob and the Uzbek border. The placement of Russian bases in these two locations suggests an arrangement to protect the security of the loyal Kulob group against internal rivals and against possible trouble from Uzbekistan. The selection of those sites would also seem to indicate that the Russian command considers most of the country unsafe for Russian bases.
TREATY REINFORCES AN ESTABLISHED PRESENCE
Russian Army troops in Tajikistan are said to number some 8,000 to 9,000 at present, including 6,500 troops of the 201st division. The division is highly rated in terms of battle readiness, enjoys priority access to scarce supplies, and benefits from combat experience in Afghanistan and the Tajik civil war. The Russian forces include a strong complement of armor and artillery, some tactical aviation, and are said to control arms stockpiles for a larger number of troops. A Russian advisory mission, comprised of some twenty senior officers under a Major-General, essentially supervises Tajikistan’s Defense Ministry. Russian advisers are also assigned to Tajik military units. Some 550 Tajik officers and cadets are currently studying in Russian military academies. The Russian side plans to develop and equip the Tajik army. That army has compiled a dismal record in the recent civil war against numerically inferior and poorly equipped but better motivated forces.
Russian border troops in Tajikistan have traditionally been more numerous than Russian Army troops there. The border troops currently number 14,500. Most of the officers are Russian while most of the conscripts Tajikistani. Under an earlier bilateral agreement, the sides are supposed to defray the Russian border troops’ expenses on a fifty-fifty basis. The Tajik side is, however, unable to pay its share, leaving Moscow to bear almost the entire financing burden.
Commenting on the treaties just signed in Moscow, Rahmonov went out of his way to extend assurances that the Tajik-Russian relationship is “not aimed against the interests of other countries,” and that “Tajikistan’s territory would not be used against other countries for hostile actions.” The assurances are intended primarily for Uzbekistan and secondarily for Afghanistan. Moscow and the Rahmonov government have apparently decided to ignore the objections of the United Tajik Opposition (UTO), now a nominal partner in what is being described as a coalition government. The UTO considers the stationing of Russian Army troops in Tajikistan as incompatible with the country’s independence and a heavy mortgage on its future.
The UTO, the Uzbek government and the Taliban authorities have very little in common with each other and indeed much to separate them. But they all oppose–each for its own reasons–the Russian militarization of Tajikistan. And–again for varying reasons–they strongly disagree with Rahmonov’s position, reaffirmed by him in the Kremlin, that “Russia has been and remains the guarantor of peace and stability, not only in our region, but throughout the world.”