Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 5

The Week Just Past:Moscow joins Partnership for Peace but remains bogged down in Chechnya

Russian diplomacy in Europe, Moscow’s response to the tragicearthquake on Sakhalin, and the war in Chechnya dominated theweek.

In Europe, Russia entered NATO’s Partnership for Peace arrangement,was stung by NATO’s moves in Eastern Europe, and sought to blockany further use of force against the Bosnian Serbs. On May 31,Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev signed a Partnership for Peaceagreement with NATO but used the occasion to demand that NATOtransform itself and subordinate its activities to the OSCE. (NATOprotocol officers were so concerned that Kozyrev might back outat the last minute that they restricted the access of journaliststo the signing ceremony.) The same day, Russian president Yeltsinreiterated Moscow’s opposition to NATO expansion. Russian commentatorsdivided on these issues, some seeing Russia’s entrance with reservationsas a victory for Moscow, others as a defeat of enormous proportions.

Both sides could find support in other European diplomatic developments.Having been told June 1 that it would enjoy a "special relationship"with NATO, Moscow must have been stung by NATO’s suggestion thenext day that the alliance would also develop a "specialrelationship" with Ukraine. Moreover, NATO foreign ministersmade it very clear that expansion of the alliance will proceedregardless of Moscow’s opposition. At the same time, the EuropeanUnion refused to end its suspension of efforts to reach an economicagreement with Moscow. But Russian economics ministry officialssaid confidently that the US would help Moscow reschedule itsforeign debt at the upcoming Halifax G-7 summit.

On Bosnia, too, Moscow had to tread a difficult path, on theone hand not offending its new Western partners but on the othernot losing its traditional ties to the Serbs. This week, Moscowofficials blamed the NATO airstrikes for exacerbating the situationand leading the Bosnian Serbs to take UN personnel hostage, andRussian diplomats indicated that only Moscow could achieve a resolutionof the conflict. Their recipe: a partial lifting of internationalsanctions on Belgrade. The five-nation Contact Group appears tohave accepted this as the last best hope of avoiding either broadscaleintervention or a humiliating defeat in Yugoslavia. Some Russianshave concluded that the West has already lost. One commentatorsuggested that NATO had just lost its first war, even though ithas not lost a single soldier.

Moscow’s handling of the killer earthquake on Sakhalin this weekunderscores just how much Russia has changed since the end ofthe Soviet Union–and how little. On the one hand, President Yeltsinannounced a national day of mourning for the victims who are likelyto number more than 2,000. Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdinhurried back from a vacation to take charge of the operation.And mid-level officials were quite ready to point out to Russianand Western journalists discrepancies between the facts on theground and often very different descriptions of these facts inMoscow. Moreover, these officials gave the green light to foreignassistance even when Moscow objected. On the other hand, coverageof the quake and its aftermath recalled Soviet times. First, localofficials said there had been no serious damage. Then Moscow journalistssuggested that the situation was almost beyond control, and finallythe Russian government said that it was in complete charge ofthe situation and did not need any outside help. Yeltsin’s suggestionthat Tokyo would use any aid to Sakhalin as the basis for demandingthe return of the Russian-occupied Kurile Islands offended manyin Japan. And now many in Russia as well.

The war in Chechnya increased in intensity over the past week.Russian forces moved into the foothills around key Chechen villages,and some even went into the mountains which President DzhokharDudayev’s forces still control. The biggest change this week wasrapidly escalating death tolls on both sides. Not surprisingly,both Russian commanders and Chechen leaders hardened their publicstances. Russian generals said they would continue the war untilthe Chechens were completely pacified; Chechens said they wouldresume talks only if there were a genuine cease-fire or a studyof the conflict by the UN or the OSCE. While Russia would "win"any such war of attrition, the return of more "overcoatsof lead," Russian slang for body bags, to Moscow is likelyto further anger many Russians already tired of the war. And alsothis week, Russian human rights activist Sergei Kovalev gave chillingnew details of Russian torture of Chechen captives in the notorious"filtration" camps. As a result of these two developments,more Russians may demand an end to the fighting. That is whatSaint Petersburg mayor Anatoli Sobchak appears to be countingon: he announced his own peace plan June 1. Official Moscow isunlikely to agree to its terms–which include the withdrawal ofthe Russian army–but Sobchak’s ideas will spark a new debate.

Other developments in the past week likely to resonate in thefuture include:

–Yeltsin tightened his control over the media and may have beenbehind the reimposition of Soviet-style restrictions on the releaseof agricultural crop estimates.

–The talks between the Tajik government and the Tajik oppositionconcluded in Alma-Ata with no progress on the basic politicalquestion of forming a broader-based government. The two sidesdid agree to exchange prisoners and work for the return of refugees.

–A Moscow paper acknowledged that Russian financial manipulationshad caused the failure of the Baltija Bank in Latvia, a developmentthat has shaken the Riga regime.

–Lt. Gen. Alexandr Lebed, commander of the 14th army in Moldova,has submitted his resignation but Yeltsin has not yet agreed toaccept it. If the Russian president does, he will likely haveyet another serious political opponent.

–The Ukrainian president and parliament split on whether tohold a referendum on the public’s confidence in the legislativeand executive branch June 28, even as Kiev’s relations with Crimeaimproved after the Crimean parliament dropped plans to hold areferendum on closer ties with Russia.