POLITICAL MAYHEM IN MOSCOW
While NATO air strikes have in recent days dominated headlines around the world (see below), the events in the former Yugoslavia come on the heels of a rapidly unraveling political situation inside Russia. The fortnight began with rampant rumors that the increasingly open feud between President Boris Yeltsin and Prime Minster Yevgeny Primakov was about to reach a final phase–the replacement of part or all of the Primakov cabinet. With presidential spokesmen having criticized the premier for being insufficiently critical of his cabinet’s work, and Yeltsin himself chastising Primakov for being intolerant of press criticism, rumors began to proliferate concerning possible successors for the prime minister’s post.
Some observers favored a scenario under which Federation Council Chairman Yegor Stroev would replace Primakov and Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky would replace First Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Maslyukov, the embattled Communist Party economist in charge of the government’s economic policy. Others speculated that Interior Minister Sergei Stepashin would become the new prime minister, simply because, in the view of these observers, he is the only high-level official remaining who is regarded as completely loyal to Yeltsin and who therefore could be trusted by the Kremlin inner circle.
The dynamic of events, however, shifted abruptly and dramatically on March 17, when the Federation Council, the upper chamber of the Russian parliament, voted not to accept the resignation of Prosecutor General Yuri Skuratov. He had asked to resign back in February, ostensibly due to ill health.
The overwhelming majority of observers had assumed that Skuratov–whose resignation request, under law, had to be approved by the Federation Council–would simply bow out quietly. The chief prosecutor’s exit was seen as particularly likely in view of rumors that had been circulating about a tape allegedly showing him in bed with two prostitutes. However, instead of getting up before the regional governors and legislative chiefs who sit in the Council and resigning without incident, Skuratov read a speech charging that he had been forced to submit his resignation by various oligarchs, two former deputy prime ministers and former Central Bank officials. He said he would stay in office if he received the support of the regional bosses.
And that he did. The Federation Council members had reportedly all received copies of the sex tape, but whoever distributed it had clearly miscalculated: the Council voted 142-6, with three abstentions, in Skuratov’s favor. Some observers said that the Council members were simply moved by “male solidarity” and the knowledge that similar videos could surface in which they would be the stars. But the vote undoubtedly was more than that. It was also a barometer of the degree to which the personalistic system established by Boris Yeltsin under the guise of democratic capitalism is failing along with the health of its founder. In addition, the Skuratov vote means that Russia now has a new opposition to go along with the leftist opposition in the State Duma. One observer dubbed this new political force the “feudal opposition.” It is made up of a group of regional leaders who are openly defying the Kremlin’s will.
THE PLOT THICKENS
Skuratov’s reversal of fortunes was undoubtedly unwelcome news to a wide range of suspects implicated in the various criminal investigations launched by the Russian prosecutor general. The targets of those investigations include enterprises believed to be controlled by the tycoon Boris Berezovsky. They also include Russia’s Central Bank. Skuratov has accused the bank of placing part of the country’s hard currency reserves in offshore zones and using the money to speculate in risky domestic treasury bills.
As it turned out, however, the prosecutor general was looking into something even more potentially explosive. Last fall Skuratov reportedly began a secret criminal investigation into the Kremlin’s “property management” department–headed by veteran insider Pavel Borodin–for allegedly receiving bribes and for other abuses. What is more, Skuratov had asked Carla Del Ponte, Switzerland’s top prosecutor, for assistance in the case. Both sides were focusing on links between Borodin’s office and a Swiss firm called Mabetex. It had secured contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars to renovate a number of official Russian buildings, including the White House and the Kremlin’s first building.
To the Kremlin’s growing horror, Del Ponte showed up in Moscow at Skuratov’s invitation. The Swiss prosecutor, who has gone up against Italian mafiosi, international drug barons and corrupt Third World leaders, denied reports she had brought with her suitcases full of “kompromat” (compromising materials) against top Russian politicians. According to one report, however, she did hand Skuratov evidence of “dubious financial operations by Russian citizens” that required joint verification. One newspaper, meanwhile, claimed the Swiss authorities had frozen the bank accounts of top Russian officials who had deposited “astronomic sums” from bribes, natural resource exports and illegal weapons sales.
NATO LAUNCHES AIR STRIKES; MOSCOW SUFFERS DAMAGE
Amid the worsening political scandal in Moscow, a contentious and furiously-paced series of events occurred over the past fortnight for Russian diplomats as well. The tumult began on March 11-12, as the NATO military alliance formally offered membership to three new Eastern European countries. Russian criticism of that move, although intense, was exceeded some two weeks later when NATO air strikes on Serbian targets elicited a furious response from Moscow.
In between those two events–and in the run-up to a scheduled Washington visit by Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov–Moscow showed some signs of seeking to ease tensions with the United States. But the two countries continued nevertheless to clash on a host of issues, including U.S. ballistic missile defense plans and Russian-Iranian military cooperation. It was unclear at the fortnight’s close whether the clash over Kosovo would lead to a full rupture in relations between Russia and the United States, or whether Moscow’s desperate economic straits would push it to seek an accommodation with Washington and its Western allies.
NATO’s decision on March 24 to launch military actions against Yugoslavia was historically significant for the alliance and for Europe as a whole. It could also prove to be a watershed event for relations between Russia and the West. Moscow has been the most steadfast backer of hardline Yugoslav and Serbian authorities during their long conflict with Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian rebels, and Moscow had joined Belgrade in opposing parts of a Western-brokered peace plan that would have brought NATO peacekeeping forces into Kosovo. Moscow has long based its pro-Belgrade policy on what it describes as Russia’s historical and cultural ties to the Serbian people. But Moscow’s motivations in fact seem more pragmatic: to reestablish Russian influence in the Balkans and to stymie Western moves aimed at making NATO the predominant security structure in post-Cold War Europe. Moscow has also sought to lessen U.S. influence on the continent.
Ultimately, however, Moscow was unable in its self-proclaimed role as Belgrade’s advocate to win Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic’s assent to the Kosovo peace agreement. Belgrade’s intransigence represented a failure for Russian diplomacy. It was a failure, moreover, that had been foreseen by some in Russia, who believed that Milosevic had long been manipulating Moscow for political reasons of his own. That was clearly a minority view, however. Russia’s political elite has overwhelmingly backed the government in its support for Belgrade and its defiance of Washington. But that attitude, and the government’s unwillingness to buck it, left Russia defenseless when Milosevic chose to provoke a confrontation with the West. As some in Moscow noted, that confrontation came at precisely the moment when Primakov was to hold talks in Washington aimed at procuring desperately needed Western financial assistance.
Russia’s initial reaction to the NATO air strikes on Yugoslavia were hardly unexpected. Primakov aborted his trip to Washington in mid-journey. The next day an ailing Russian President Boris Yeltsin denounced the strikes as an unjustified assault on a sovereign people and as a violation of international law. He also recalled Russia’s envoy to NATO headquarters in Brussels, and said that Moscow would suspend its participation in NATO’s Partnership for Peace program. Senior Russian military officers, meanwhile, announced that they were considering unspecified possible countermeasures to the NATO actions in the Balkans. Government officials hinted that Moscow might reconsider its observance of the UN arms embargo against Yugoslavia.
In Washington, Clinton administration officials suggested that the rift with Moscow over Kosovo would likely be a temporary one, and that bilateral cooperation would continue in other areas. But, with regard to arms control at least, Russian vitriol over developments in the Balkans seemed likely both to delay ratification of the START II treaty yet again and to defer negotiations aimed at further reductions in the Russian and U.S. strategic arsenals.
The conflict over Kosovo seems likely to sharpen tensions between Russia and the United States in other areas as well. Moscow has been highly critical of U.S. plans to go forward with the development of a ballistic missile defense system, and has reportedly shared its concerns with Chinese leaders over a proposed U.S.-Japanese theater missile defense system in Asia. Moscow and Beijing, each of which strongly opposes both the theater defense system and any expansion of NATO’s international role, can probably be expected to intensify their discussions on these issues.
Barring a quick termination of the air strikes on Serbia, the latest turn in the conflict over Kosovo is likely also to have additional repercussions for relations between Russia and NATO. The alliance is currently preparing for its fiftieth anniversary celebration in Washington, and had hoped to see Russia participate in that event. The developments in Yugoslavia could dim the luster of the Washington celebration in general, however, and could also ensure that the alliance is unable to complement its first wave of enlargement with a strengthened Russia-NATO partnership.
THE CIS ADRIFT
With its long-overdue summit now scheduled for April 2, the CIS seems more than ever splintered internally and in the throes of confused speculation about its prospects.
The chaos in the CIS begins at its top, and not because of Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s recurrent bouts of illness, but because of the illness of Russia itself. Three weeks ago, in a side show to the political infighting in Moscow, CIS Executive Secretary Boris Berezovsky was dismissed by Yeltsin. But Berezovsky–currently on a speaking tour in the United States–refuses to recognize the validity of Yeltsin’s move. So do a number of presidents of CIS member countries. They hold that view not because Berezovsky is popular with them–he is not–but because of Yeltsin’s arbitrary procedure in violation of CIS rules.
Meanwhile, contradictory reports pertaining to the status of that post–and competing claims to the post itself–are multiplying. Yeltsin told Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze by telephone–falsely–that Berezovsky has signed and handed in his resignation from that post. From Washington, Berezovsky set the record straight by announcing that he had notified Yeltsin only about a “prescheduled leave of absence” for his trip; and that he remains the CIS Executive Secretary pending an official decision by the Council of Heads of State at the CIS summit. Russia’s CIS Cooperation Minister Boris Pastukhov has admitted that only six heads of state–those of Belarus, Moldova, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan–have thus far added their signatures ex post facto to the ouster of the CIS executive secretary by the Russian president. Yeltsin had asked all the presidents on March 4 to sign on “without delay.”
“NOW YOU SEE IT, NOW YOU DON’T”
Pastukhov, moreover, has hinted at widespread disagreement over the Kremlin’s nomination of the Belarusan Ivan Karatchenya as CIS executive secretary. Shevardnadze has already announced his intention to nominate a representative of his country–or any country other than Russia for that post. Shevardnadze, moreover, added to the series of embarrassing disclosures he has made since the commotion began. He made public the episode of Yeltsin’s misleading telephone call to him; and only half-allowed Yeltsin off the hook with the comment that “it would be pointless to punish those who misinformed the Russian president.”
Belarusan President Alyaksandr Lukashenka suggested, during a visit to Kyiv, that the CIS executive secretary’s post should go to a Ukrainian. If Kyiv accepts, “Ukraine will then have to sign the CIS pacts which it has not signed,” was Lukashenka’s publicly stated rationale. The proposal actually accompanied Lukashenka’s unsuccessful attempt to persuade President Leonid Kuchma to join in a “comprehensive strategic partnership” with Russia and Belarus. And Kuchma confirmed that Moscow had asked him directly to propose a Ukrainian for the post. The offer is designed to place Kuchma–who faces reelection this year–in the dilemma of either antagonizing a part of the electorate, or walking into the trap of assuming co-responsibility for CIS “integration.” Kuchma deflected the proposals of which Lukashenka was the messenger. But Kuchma’s leftist rivals hailed it, in a harbinger of the changes that a Red victory in Ukraine’s presidential election would bring to Central Europe’s geopolitical landscape.
In Russia itself, the CIS executive secretary’s post has turned into something of a political football. Saratov region governor Dmitri Ayatskov has proposed the candidacy of Vladimir Shumeiko. He is the former chairman of Russia’s Federation Council and of the CIS Interparliamentary Assembly. He is also a long-time Yeltsin loyalist and currently leader of the Reforms-New Course movement. Samara region Governor Konstantin Titov, meanwhile, is believed to seek the position for himself and to have approached Kuchma for support during a visit to Kyiv. Some communist and allied deputies in the Duma favor Narodovlastie faction leader Nikolai Ryzhkov, the former Soviet prime minister, who now heads a “Eurasian” public movement. Armenia for one would enthusiastically favor Ryzhkov. The overall situation prompted even Lukashenka to remark ruefully in Kyiv: “The CIS: now you see it, now you don’t.” Echoed Kuchma: “Just like the post of executive secretary: now you see it, now you don’t.”
RIFT OVER NATO’S ENLARGEMENT
This fortnight saw the official admission of Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary to NATO, despite angry protests and warnings from Moscow and Minsk. The historic event reverberated in the CIS in a way that dramatized the rift between Russia, together with its Belarusan satellite on the one hand, and the independent-minded countries on the other hand. In the CIS area abutting on NATO, four countries welcomed NATO’s enlargement. The “GUAM” group of Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova congratulated the three former Warsaw Pact countries on joining the Atlantic alliance. In its special address to the OSCE’s Permanent Council, the GUAM group described NATO as a source of stability and security; and they underscored the sovereign right of all countries without exception to choose for themselves the optimal ways of providing for their security. GUAM’s statement expressed the hope that NATO would continue the “open door” policy and develop cooperation with partner countries that currently are not NATO members–a thinly veiled reference to the GUAM countries themselves.
Ahead of GUAM’s collective statement, Ukraine and Georgia had separately welcomed the three Central European countries’ accession to NATO. Kyiv and Tbilisi virtually called for a continuation of NATO’s enlargement process. In contrast to Moscow, official Kyiv welcomed the new situation of contiguity to NATO. Ukraine demonstrated that it draws comfort and a measure of confidence from the fact that its western neighbors have become full members of the Atlantic Alliance. According to a special Foreign Ministry statement, “the Ukrainian government welcomes the sovereign choice of friendly Poland, Hungary and the Czech republic to join the Atlantic Alliance… a testimony to the fact that any state is entitled to choose for itself the means to guarantee its security. We trust that the open process of accession of further countries to NATO will enhance security and stability in Europe and the entire Euro-Atlantic area.”
While the government’s statement bore the personal stamp of Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk, an equally assertive message came from the ambassador to NATO, Kostyantin Hryshchenko, at the “NATO-50” anniversary conference in London. Describing the “positive effects” for Ukraine from NATO’s enlargement, Hryshchenko cited Kuchma’s known position that Ukraine’s admission to NATO “is not on the agenda at the present time,” and that in the meantime, the Charter of Distinctive Partnership with NATO enables Ukraine to upgrade its military and enhance its security. Ukraine, moreover, operates a joint military unit with Poland, now a full-fledged member of NATO. Parts of these statements would seem to read like an introductory argument in support of Ukraine’s own right to exercise the free choice of its security arrangements when the time is ripe. Equally noteworthy is the vision of Ukraine as part of the Euroatlantic space, in contrast to Moscow’s perspective on Ukraine as part of an ex-Soviet/CIS space centered on Russia.
Shevardnadze for his part described the accession of the ex-Soviet bloc countries to NATO as “a landmark in the process of unification of Europe, overcoming the divisions that totalitarianism had imposed.” Shevardnadze expressed confident hope that “more countries will gain admission to NATO, so that the process becomes irreversible.” While recognizing the fact that Georgia is not eligible for admission “at this time,” the president implicitly reserved that option for his country in the future.
The three Central European countries’ admission to NATO signifies the corollary of a process that Shevardnadze had helped launch. Exactly ten years ago, as Foreign Minister of the USSR, he facilitated the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and the collapse of Moscow’s position in Central Europe–a role for which post-Soviet Russia’s military and nationalist governing circles are still exacting their revenge in Abkhazia and other areas of Georgia. The Georgian government overtly considers NATO countries as Georgia’s optimal partners in terms of national and regional security and is developing cooperation with them. Georgia’s neighbor Azerbaijan, meanwhile, has become the first of the former Soviet republics to offer to host on its territory troops of NATO countries.