Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 7

The Week Just Past: The Chechen seizure of hostages in Budennovsk changes everything

The seizure of 1000 hostages by a dissident Chechen unit June14 so dominated the remaining portion of the week that one couldeasily forget two other equally important events last week: thecontinued strengthening of the ruble against the dollar and theapproval of the compromise election law by the Russian parliament’supper house. All three of these developments will have lengthyshadows in the weeks to come.

Last weekend, the Russian army occupied after heavy fightingmuch of the area that had been under the control of PresidentDzhokhar Dudayev and his forces. Having split the Chechen forcesinto at least three groups, Russian officials expressed confidencethat the war would soon be over–perhaps even by the end of themonth–but Dudayev pledged to fight on, threatening a guerrillawar on Russia. Then, at midweek, a dissident Chechen unit movedinto the city of Budennovsk in Russia’s Stavropol kray, seizedas many as 1,000 hostages and demanded that Moscow stop the warin Chechnya and enter into negotiations. Both Dudayev and thecommander of the unit said that the Chechens in Budennovsk wereacting on their own and not under the command of President Dudayev.

But that hardly mattered.

The Chechen action quickly disarmed both Russian and foreigncritics of Yeltsin’s prosecution of the war. Duma deputies andmedia commentators alike agreed with the Russian president’s characterizationthat this act shows the Chechens to be the terrorists Yeltsinhas always portrayed them to be. Leaders of the G-7 countries,some of whom had been expected to criticize the war when theymeet Yeltsin in Halifax, were thrown off balance, and Yeltsinmoved to take advantage of the situation by ordering tighter securitythroughout the country and announcing through his foreign ministrythat he would ask the G-7 leaders to join a common fight againstterrorism.

But as of June 16 it remained unclear just how this hostage crisiswould be resolved. The Chechens in Budennovsk have announced thatthey are willing to die but will take the hostages with them ifRussian forces try to rescue the hostages by force. Moreover,any attack on them or elsewhere against the Chechens would likelyforce Dudayev to bow to pressure from his subordinates and launcha campaign of attacks on Russian installations in Moscow and elsewhere.But at the same time and given the current environment, it seemsvery unlikely that Moscow would be willing to negotiate seriouslyor to end the war as some Russian leaders have urged.

As the Chechen fighting was winding down or at least enteringa new phase, Moscow seemed to be making progress on the economicfront. The strengthening of the ruble against the dollar is ExhibitA for those who believe that the Russian economy has finally turnedthe corner. After three years of decline, the economy showed asmall recovery last month and this, but investment remained farbelow last year. Moreover, many Russian economists either dismissedthe ruble’s rise as artificially induced by the government orsuggested that the new stronger ruble could actually fuel inflationby adding to the ruble money supply and hurting consumers.

And in an action that sets the stage for parliamentary electionsin December 1995, the Federation Council of the Russian parliamentapproved the compromise election bill June 15 overwhelmingly afterequally overwhelmingly rejecting it the day before. Communistparty leaders claimed credit for the turnabout. The bill now goesto Yeltsin for his signature. Under its provisions, half the membersof the next Duma will be elected by party list and half in singlemember districts, and the parties will have to limit the numberof Moscow-based candidates they put forward, strengthening theregions and Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin’s party of power.Once Yeltsin signs the measure, which will probably be as soonas he returns from Halifax, the election campaign–already overheated–willheat up some more.

Other developments in the region that are likely to have implicationsfor the future included:

–Yeltsin finally accepted the retirement request of Lt. Gen.Aleksandr Lebed, the controversial commander of the 14th RussianArmy in Moldova’s Transdniestr region. Lebed is likely to enterpolitics as a candidate for the presidency against Yeltsin, andthere are increasing fears in both Moscow and Kishiinev that thearmy’s enormous arms caches in the Transdniestr region will fallinto the wrong hands, sparking renewed fighting there.

–Saint Petersburg mayor Anatoly Sobchak joined Moscow mayorYuri Luzhkov in protesting the Russian government’s plans to imposenew tariffs on imported food beginning July 1. Both men are convincedthat the tariffs will lead to higher prices for their residentswithout helping Russian agriculture to survive. Russian governmentspokesmen dismissed these fears so cavalierly that the Moscowgovernment has gone to court to sue one of them for slander.

–Russia’s nuclear power ministry said Moscow would go aheadwith planned nuclear sales to Iran without waiting for the reviewof the deal by the Gore-Chernomyrdin commission. Yeltsin had promisedPresident Clinton such a review at their May 10 summit. The ministryalso said that Russia would sell two additional nuclear powerstation blocs to China, and nuclear energy officials, obviouslyaffected by French plans to resume nuclear testing, said thatMoscow should do the same in order to modernize its inventoryof weapons.

–Russian deputy premier Vitaly Ignatenko promised to try tokeep Western firms out of the Russian media market. His remarksappear directed in the first instance at Reuters which plans toestablish a CIS-wide network of reporters this year. He also appearedto be moving against the Russian media as well–more papers werethreatened by mounting losses, and the Russian government sealedthe offices of Ostankino television after the latter had failedto pay its bills. In neighboring Belarus, local journalists saidthat the presidential press office increasingly resembled theMinistry of Truth in George Orwell’s novel 1984.

–And Russians marked the fifth anniversary of the declarationof Russian sovereignty in a gloomy mood. Yeltsin tried to putan upbeat face on things, but most commentators highlighted howfar Russia was from moving toward democracy and free markets andhow difficult and dangerous the path ahead is likely to be.