Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 4

The Week Just Past: Yeltsin’s veto of the parliamentary bill sets up new squabbles in Moscow and raises new questions about Yeltsin’s plans for future elections

Yeltsin’s veto of the Russian parliament’s election bill, OSCEefforts to convene peace talks in Chechnya while Russian attackscontinue, and increasingly independent stances by Ukraine andthe Central Asian states in the run-up to the CIS summit dominatednews in this region during the past week.

Boris Yeltsin’s decision to veto the parliamentary election billexacerbated the concerns of those who fear the elections willbe delayed, or even put off entirely. Yeltsin said he vetoed themeasure because it would allow too many deputies to be electedby party list–something that could help both the communists andVladimir Zhirinovsky’s nationalists–and too few deputies fromsingle-member districts–which are more easily dominated by theincumbents grouped around Prime Minister Chernomyrdin’s "Russiais Our Home" bloc. The Duma failed to override the measurebut did ask Yeltsin to reconsider his stand. Russian commentatorssuggested that the country might soon have to choose between "thelesser of two evils": not having elections this year, orholding them on the basis of an extra-constitutional presidentialdecree as in December 1993. Either way, the political system standsto lose even more legitimacy in the eyes of the population, andthat could force Yeltsin to rely–as he has of late–ever moreheavily on the security services and other "power" ministries.While such a course might guarantee some apparent stability, itwill both undermine Russian efforts to move toward a democracyand attract foreign investments.

OSCE-sponsored talks between the Russians, the Moscow-backedChechens, and the Chechen opposition, broke off almost as quicklyas they started May 25. The two sides are so far apart that noprogress is likely soon: the Russian army wants the Chechens tosurrender; the Chechens want the Russians to withdraw. Holdingthe talks, though, is clearly part of Moscow’s strategy. The Russiangovernment clearly hopes that any talks will silence, or at leastreduce, the volume of Western criticism, allowing the Russianarmy time to pursue the "rebels" with surgical strikes.This week as before, the Russian attacks were anything but surgical.Instead, the Russian military used massive bombing, shelling,and tank fire on civilian targets throughout southern and easternChechnya. The Chechens continued to resist and were able to launchfresh attacks on the Grozny airports and on Russian railways andmilitary convoys.

And in the run-up to the CIS summit which Moscow had hoped wouldaccelerate the reintegration of the 12 former Soviet republics,several of these republics adopted an increasingly independentstand. Belarus, whose vote May 14 to establish an economic unionwith Russia had encouraged Yeltsin to think that others wouldgo along, was rocked by student demonstrations protesting theintroduction of Russian border guards and customs agents. In CentralAsia, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan moved away from Moscow on Tajikistanand threatened to pull their peace-keeping units from that countryunless Dushanbe made concessions to the opposition. Azerbaijaninsisted that it would continue to press for the constructionof a pipeline that did not pass through Russia and appeared tohave gained some US support for that plan at a meeting of oilcompany executives in Baku. And Ukraine took the most dramaticsteps: President Kuchma signed a free trade agreement with Estoniathus undercutting Moscow’s plans for a single economic space vis-à-visthe rest of the world, Ukrainian soldiers participated with Americanservicemen in a Partnership for Peace exercise, and the Ukrainianparliament sent an ultimatum to Crimea to drop any plans on areferendum for greater autonomy. As the CIS summit opened May26, Moscow could round up only six other countries to agree toits plan to combine border and customs services of the region.

Other key developments this week which are likely to have a broaderimpact include:

–Moscow continues to hedge on signing the Partnership for Peaceagreement despite Yeltsin’s pledge to Clinton at the summit. Moscowofficials also said that Yeltsin would eventually visit Iran,another slap at the US.

–Yeltsin and his foreign ministry appeared at odds on the NATOairstrike against the Bosnian Serbs. Yeltsin said the Serbs hadbeen warned; the foreign ministry said the attack was evidenceof the West’s "double standard" in the conflict anddemanded an explanation.

–Russian spring sowing is so far behind that Moscow may haveto enter the world grain markets this fall to prevent food shortages.Given worldwide declines in grain production this year, Russianparticipation in the market could drive prices up.

–Another bombing of a pipeline in Georgia that carries gas toArmenia led Yerevan to demand international guarantees of itsenergy supply. Failing that, the Armenian government said it wouldnot participate in future OSCE Minsk group consultations.

–Nuclear smuggling from Russia has reached such proportionsthat the German airline Lufthansa announced it would now use geigercounters on all passengers and baggage boarding its planes inRussian cities.