The Week Just Past: Yeltsin vetoes peace talks in Chechnya; undermines his PM at the same time
In addition to the reverberations from the Clinton-Yeltsin summit–which the Moscow media said the Russian side had won–threeevents dominated the past week: expanded fighting in Chechnya,the fitful start of more Russian political blocs, and a votein Belarus for closer ties with Russia.
On May 19, Boris Yeltsin vetoed Prime Minister Chernomyrdin’s proposal to have roundtable talks with the Chechens and to includeinternational observers in the talks. Chernomyrdin made the proposalthe day before, apparently in response to a Chechen call fornegotiations to end the bloodshed. Yeltsin’s veto not only undermineshis prime minister, the man he had backed to dominate the upcomingparliamentary elections, but also sets the stage for more fighting. Intense fighting continued all week across Chechnya, with only a slight lull May17-18 as Russian forces prepared for an assault into the Chechen-held mountains. Despite their appeals for talks, the Chechens continued to attack Russian positions,as well as to defend their own. Deaths and other casualtiesmounted on both sides. At the beginning of the week, theChechens reported finding a corpse they said could be that ofFred Cuny, the American aid worker who has been missing in Chechnyasince April 9; but subsequent forensic examinations concludedthat it was not Cuny. Moscow security service spokesmen indicatedthat this corpse could not be Cuny, but they did not say howMoscow knew. Since these reports, there has been no further wordon Cuny’s fate.
The two new electoral blocs–Chernomyrdin’s "Russia isOur Home" and Duma speaker Ivan Rybkin’s "Accord"group–which Yeltsin had hoped would dominate the upcoming parliamentary elections, seemed to be in deep trouble even before they began their work. Many political leaders expected to join one or the other failed to do so; some explicitly said they would run againstthe blocs, or form their own, and many regional officials createdspecial regional blocs to oppose the Moscow-dominated groups.Moreover, polls showed that the two Yeltsin-backed groups wouldreceive less than 25 percent of the vote if elections were heldnow, not the 67 percent of the vote which their organizers had claimed. And another poll showed that only 3 percent of Russiansare currently inclined to vote for Yeltsin if he runs. All these developments suggest that the next Duma may be even more fractiousthan the current one, and that Yeltsin may think again aboutholding a presidential election in 1996 or standing for reelectionif the voting does take place.
And in Belarus, voters overwhelmingly supported President Lukashenko’s call for closer ties with Russia. Moscow quickly moved to exploit this victory, installing Russian supervisors over the customs offices on Belarus’s western border. But Belarusianofficials indicated that closer ties to Moscow may not mean asmuch as Russian leaders think: economic integration is one thing;giving up independence is quite another. A USIA poll releasedthis week shows that overwhelming majorities of Belarusians wanttheir country to remain independent. Also, Lukashenko has demonstratedtime and again that he likes being president, something he wouldcease to be were Belarus to unite with Russia. Perhaps the bestsymbol of what happened in the May 14 voting was that the followingmorning the new red and white Belarusian flag was taken downfrom in front of the president’s office, and the old Soviet-eraBelarusian flag was raised–but this time without the hammerand sickle on it.
Other developments of the past week likely to have a lasting impact:
–The Russian security services were given expanded powersto watch over Russian residents and a bigger budget to do so.
–The Caspian littoral states were once again unable to agree whether that body of water is a lake or a sea. On the outcomeof that apparently obscure legal debate depend both the economic future of Azerbaijan and Central Asia, and the routes of pipelines from the region to the West.
–Moscow stepped up its propaganda campaign against Kiev even as the Ukrainian president strengthened his power over the republic’sparliament, and as Moscow observers questioned whether Russiacould in fact impose its will at a price Moscow would be willingto pay.
–The closing of a Russian-language newspaper, the death ofa political prisoner, and reports of actions against opposition politicians have clouded the election campaign in Armenia, and have cast a shadow over the reputation of President Levon Ter-Petrosyan.
–The ruble stabilized this week against the dollar, but economic problems–including falling wages and energy production–suggestedthat the ruble would resume its fall soon, that inflation willnot come down as fast as Moscow has promised Western financialinstitutions, and that many Russians may vote their pocketbooksin the upcoming elections. None of this can be welcome news toChernomyrdin and his "party of power."