Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 21

Yeltsin and Clinton Play “Yugoslavian Roulette”

by Aleksandr Zhilin

It is difficult to say for certain at this point how the recentmilitary operation in Bosnia will be reflected in the US president’spolling numbers. However, it is obvious today that NATO’s intensiveair attacks against the Serb positions serve to undermine thealready frail sprouts of Russia’s democracy thus reanimating thenational-patriotic forces. Therefore, it is not clear at thispoint how the US will benefit and how it will lose by crushingthe Serbs, but receiving in return a mobilized communist-fascistRussia as a potential adversary.

Clinton’s Stakes

Viewed from Russia, Clinton’s stakes look like this. The AmericanPresident has quietly begun to prepare the ground for his upcomingelection campaign. As far as Clinton’s foreign policy is concerned,it can hardly be called a clear success. An overt failure in Somalia,problems in regulating the Yugoslavian conflict, and a numberof smaller faults in other regions of the world dictate an urgentneed for victories to cover the defeats. Where is it possibleto win a decisive victory? Naturally, in local conflicts wherethere is an opportunity to knock out an adversary known to beweaker instead of pursuing painstaking diplomatic work which leaveslittle impression in the eyes of the voters. To demonstrate tohis own people his decisiveness in asserting his country’s strategicinterests anywhere on Earth, especially in the very heart of Europe.

It is obvious that while encouraging NATO’s intensive militaryactions against the Serbs, Bill Clinton is thinking rather aboutthe upcoming election campaign (which is natural) than about theMuslims’ priorities in Yugoslavia. At least, the formally declaredofficial motivations for using military force in this region lookunconvincing.

So far, Clinton’s policy of placing his stakes on intensive militaryactions in Yugoslavia has justified itself. America loves victoriesand cares very much about the extent of her influence in the worldand of her prestige as a superpower. Therefore, the American publiccannot but be pleased with the increasing role of NATO (read,the US) in Europe, on the background of the events in Yugoslavia.After all, it looks very much like NATO has, to a certain extent,risen above the increasingly amorphous UN, which has been rapidlylosing influence and has been continually suffering financialproblems. These factors definitely promise decent dividends tothe American President today. But what will happen tomorrow, ifNATO’s victory over the Serbs turns out to be a Pyrrhic one, andEurope wakes up on the threshold of a major international militaryconfrontation?

Yeltsin’s Stakes

It is almost as if the Russian President looks on the escalationof military actions in Bosnia with a feeling of deep inner satisfaction.Even in his wildest dreams, he could not have imagined such alavish, or more important, such a timely gift presented to himby the West and to a considerable extent by the American Presidentpersonally. It has been obvious for some time that Yeltsin feelsuncomfortable in his democratic frock coat. Democracy is goodfor a leader who has the things going well in his country, orfor a leader who is skillful at using the democratic instrumentsof ruling the country, or for a leader who is morally preparedto answer for the results of his rule.

But Boris Yeltsin is a communist-style functionary on, if itis possible to speak this way, the genetic level. He had beenbrought up as a leader by the CPSU system of personnel trainingand hence he is programmed is to perform within the limits ofso-called "communist democratic centralism" which hasnothing in common with genuine democracy. Things for "Yeltsinthe democrat" are bad today. Economic reforms have hit theskids while the country has fallen into the chasm and chaos oframpant crime. Endless court intrigues in the Kremlin, the corruptincompetence and dependence of his entourage, and the triumphof the principle of personal loyalty in personnel policy in thehiring of top-level government officials, to the detriment ofmoral conditions — all this argues persuasively how far the RussianPresident stands from the genuinely democratic principles of rulingthe country. Yeltsin’s Administration, together with the SecurityCouncil, is the same "cesspool" of a state- managementsystem as the former CPSU Politburo used to be. The only differencebeing that the rules of the game, considered from the moral viewpoint,have become much less scrupulous in the present Russian managementapparatus compared to that during Soviet times.

Democracy for Yeltsin is not only uncomfortable and unpleasant,but dangerous as well. Dangerous, first of all, because of theresponsibility which will come at the culminating political momentof the presidential elections (if they take place) in June ofnext year. This is why the Russian President would be very gladto change his current democratic frock coat, if not for a dictator’suniform, than at least for an old fashioned authoritarian suit.But the problem is that he needs a plausible excuse…

Now the UN and NATO have given him such an excuse. Russia isignored… Russia has no friends… Hints to that effect wereclearly recognizable in Yeltsin’s speech at his latest press conference.Although declaring his devotion to the democratic forces the RussianPresident has at the same time very plainly hinted that he waslooking for a foothold on the left flank. By the way, clichésused by Boris Yeltsin in his speech to express political ideaswere in fact not very different from those used by the nationalpatriots.

As a democratic reformer, Yeltsin has turned out to be completelybankrupt and perhaps even the main discreditor of the democraticidea in Russia. This is why he has a very strong temptation toput on the toga of a statist-patriot, especially since this modeof political clothing is becoming increasingly fashionable inRussia.

Washington and Moscow: To Each His Own…

In playing out their game of "Yugoslavian roulette"Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin each count on receiving their owninternal political dividends. It may be that both will harvestcertain momentary profits. But it is obvious that internationalrelations will not benefit at all. The Yugoslavian conflict resemblesa time bomb which will explode with renewed force at its "X-hour."

Taking advantage of the moment, Boris Yeltsin is turning theship of state sharply to the left. We already feel it today howthe whole "Russian boat" is listing to port, so to speak,and changing course. This political maneuver by the Russian Presidentis not so safe as it may appear at first glance. The point istoday, there is something about the left flank of Russian politicalforces which has not yet been noticed in the West. The structuralweakness of the Russian left creates a real threat of nationalism,chauvinism and even national-fascism gaining momentum in Russia.After all it is absolutely clear today that the Russian CommunistParty (Zyuganov), Congress of Russian Communities (Skokov andLebed), fascist-style Liberal Democratic Party (Zhirinovsky),Rutskoi’s "Derzhava" and All-Russian Officers’ Assembly(Achalov) — all are actively exploiting the national, if notnationalistic, idea. Moreover, it has to be noted that this ideais getting more and more popular in the country.

After the illusions of a "bright democratic future"have dissipated and society finds itself in disarray, Boris Yeltsinalso needs this idea very much. He could try to unite a majorityof the electorate around it. In a situation where, according tosome estimates, 80 percent of the population lives near, or evenbelow, the poverty line, Yeltsin badly needs an idea to providethe people with a motivation for them to continue suffering thesehardships. All Russian history shows that the best way for thegovernment to unite the full and the hungry, the socially alienated,behind themselves is the presence of an external threat, a foreignenemy. For more than 70 years this method had brilliantly beenexploited by the CPSU, which deftly appealed to the threat posedby the West, NATO and the US, forcing the population of the SovietUnion to endure all hardships, while submissively praying: ifonly there will be no war.

Yeltsin and his team are not inventing anything new today andremain faithful to the old communist ideological principles. Afterhis last press conference at which the Russian President poundedheavily on the West and the US, Russian state-run television andradio have broadcast national patriotic propaganda programs everyday. On our televisions we see NATO aircraft dropping bombs onthe Serbs, and crowds of refugees in Yugoslavia, while anchormenand political analysts speak about the abuse of Russia’s nationalinterests, the increasing threat from the West, a new re-divisionof the world, and US arrogant interference in the affairs of Europe.The political columnists and political scientists who serve theauthorities are trying to convince the public that conversionof our military-industrial complex is a crime, that the volumeof arms production in Russia must be increased and make otherstatements which are all very reminiscent of the Cold War period.In fact, it can be said that the Russian electronic mass media(at the order of the authorities) have begun (as a trial run)building up an image of an external enemy in the person of theUS and NATO. Regrettably, it appears that the rapidly lumpenizingRussian society, to be more precise, a considerable part of it,is ready to buy the idea.

Simultaneously Yeltsin is seeking to resolve one more problem.By repeatedly showing footage of NATO aircraft dropping bombson the Serbs and making comments to the effect that the air strikeswere aimed not so much at military installation as at infrastructure,the Russian mass media are covertly justifying Russia’s militaryactions in Chechnya.

And already the far-from-rhetorical questions are getting louderand louder: why shouldn’t Moscow bomb the Chechen Republic tosmithereens? And Pavel Grachev, who had quieted down a bit, haslivened up once again in connection with this, no longer threateningonly Chechens, but NATO as well.

The only discordant note in this national-patriotic chorus isthe sober voice of Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev who warns aboutthe danger of sliding into an overt military- political confrontationwith the West. However, judging from all indications, Yeltsinwill soon betray Kozyrev, i.e., sacrificing him to the national-patriots.This will be one more step on the way towards a "cold peace"or maybe even to a "cold war."

Will the US and the American President benefit from all this?They would rather sustain a loss if they permit (or even encourage)the turn of the Russian boat to the left. Unfortunately the Westfails to (or does not want) to understand that the policy of isolationtowards Russia can very quickly result in this country again transforminginto a monster posing a threat to entire world. A hungry, embitteredand totalitarian (or authoritarian) Russia with a nuclear cudgelin its hands can dramatically destabilize the international situation.A rebirth of a military and political opposition between Russiaand the US will cost both countries dearly, but the United Stateswould pay even more. The logic here is simple: confrontation betweenMoscow and Washington is more beneficial to Moscow, because theKremlin would try to build its internal policy on it, to strengthenthe regime. It cannot be ruled out that a worsening of the relationswith the West would be used as a pretext to cancel (or postpone)the presidential elections scheduled for 1996.

The exploitation of the Bosnian crisis for internal politicalends by the US and Russia threatens to let the conflict grow intoa direct international military and political confrontation. Theodious and politically shortsighted president of Belarus, AlexanderLukashenko, already stands unconditionally on Russia’s side, havingactively supported the idea of creating a military bloc withinthe CIS framework. Chernomyrdin sounded out Kazakhstan’s positionon this question when he met with Nazarbayev. According to informationreported by confidential sources, Russia is preparing to beginsupplying arms to the Serbs. Rumors are flying that first consignmentsof arms will be shipped from Russia to Yugoslavia already in earlyOctober. Moreover, they say the Russian Defense Ministry and secretservices will encourage the Serbs to conduct active military actionsnot only against the Croats and Muslims but also against the NATOcontingent. According to some sources enlistment offices haveopened in Moscow and St. Petersburg to recruit mercenaries tofight on the Serb side. Therefore, the military conflict in Yugoslaviamay well acquire a new character in the near future. Then, thingswill look nowhere near as bright to the American President asthey do today.

All these factors give reason to conclude that it is Yeltsin,not Clinton, who has a better chance to win more in this gameof "Yugoslavian roulette." The sad thing about it isthat, by the irony of history, together with Clinton, all of democraticRussia will lose to Yeltsin as well.

Aleksandr Zhilin is the Security Issues Department Editor forMoskovskie novosti.