Publication: Prism Volume: 1 Issue: 17

Yeltsin continues his search for a way out of Chechnya

Three events dominated news in the region during the past week:continuing problems with ending the Chechen war, a payments crisisthat threatened the integrity and even the reliability of theRussian army, and the beginning of the Russian election campaign,with various officials attempting to tap into popular anger aboutgrowing social problems throughout that country.

The week began with Russian troops using massive firepower tocrush a Chechen effort to take control of government offices inArgun. That attack which cost more than 60 Chechen lives was supportedby Russian premier Viktor Chernomyrdin, who warned that any effortby the Chechens to take such steps in the future would be stoppedby force. Nonetheless, Russian commanders on the scene said thatanti-Moscow Chechens were reestablishing control over many citiesand towns in the republic. Moreover, the disarming of the Chechensdid not go well last week and in many cases, was simply a sham,with the arms turned in being given back to the same people whowere now defined as regional militias. And talks between the twosides, beyond narrowly military questions, were going nowhere.Chechen officials said that Russian actions and intransigencemight reignite the fighting. At the end of the week, Russian presidentBoris Yeltsin named hard-liner Oleg Lobov to be his personal representativein Chechnya and dispatched a Russian Security Council team totry to figure out what to do next.

Meanwhile, a financial crisis was shaking the Russian militaryto its foundations, the Russian defense ministry said. The militaryhas not been able to pay many of its officers and men for severalmonths, and it has run out of credits to buy food. As one generalcommented, "a hungry army is not an army." To punctuatethese reports, local authorities in Kaliningrad turned off electricpower to Russian military units there because the latter had notpaid their electric bills. Russian commanders and the InteriorMinistry, whose troops are suffering from many of the same problems,called on the Yeltsin government to take immediate measures toprevent these problems from growing into a crisis for Moscow itself.

And the Duma election campaign began in earnest with the communistsand the nationalists currently leading in the polls, with Yeltsincalling on democratic forces to unite and with Duma speaker IvanRybkin failing to garner much support for the left-center coalitionthat Yeltsin had asked him to create. So far, none of the candidatesor parties has been able to tap into the anger of the populationover falling wages, increasing unemployment, and the government’sunwillingness to compensate the victims of fraudulent companies.That things could go really wrong in the next few months is suggestedby popular protests against "new Russians" in Moscowand Bryansk, Yeltsin’s efforts to consolidate the security services,and new talk that Yeltsin’s aides are looking for ways to putoff the 1996 presidential poll.

Other developments that should not be forgotten from last weekinclude:

–Estonian president Lennart Meri awarded his country’s highestdiplomatic order to Robert Frasure, the American diplomat whodied in an automobile accident near Sarajevo. In presenting theaward, Meri noted that he and Estonia had lost a good friend whohad done much to promote stability in the Baltic Sea region. Frasureserved as the first US ambassador to Estonia from 1991 to 1994,and in his last post, as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Europeanaffairs, Frasure continued to supervise Washington’s approachto Estonia and her two Baltic neighbors.

–The election of Eduard Rossel, a long-standing Yeltsin opponent,as governor of Yeltsin’s home region of Sverdlovsk, sent shockwavesthrough the Russian political system. Not only did Rossel’s victorysuggest that Premier Viktor Chernomyrdin’s "Russia is OurHome" bloc–which had backed Rossel’s opponent–was muchweaker than many in Moscow had assumed, but it encouraged Rosseland other regional leaders to make additional demands on the centralauthorities for greater local control of the government apparatusand economic system. Rossel immediately demanded that Sverdlovskbe allowed to establish its own criminal code, and authoritiesin Yaroslavl put local troops around a factory to prevent Moscowfrom taking control of it and closing it down.

–Continuing to ignore Washington’s objections, Moscow went aheadand signed another agreement with Iran to build and supply withnuclear fuel a nuclear facility at Bushehr in southern Iran. Russianofficials said that "only the ignorant" could thinkthat the Iranians would be able to use these Russian contributionsto build a bomb, a statement clearly directed at the US. Giventhe current scramble for pipeline routes and for Russian dominanceover both the Transcaucasus and Central Asia, Moscow’s willingnessto supply Iran with such nuclear goods clearly reflects a Russiancalculation that the very isolation of Iran in the West will helpMoscow achieve Russian political goals.

–Constitutional discussions continued to dominate the news inGeorgia and Kazakhstan. The Georgian parliament overwhelminglyapproved a new constitution that will give Georgian leader EduardShevardnadze more power but will not solve the question of federalrelations with Abkhazia or South Ossetia. (The document must stillbe approved by a national referendum.) Abkhazia rejected anysuggestion that it should be subordinate to Tbilisi, a positionthat drew fire from both Moscow and Tbilisi. Meanwhile, in Kazakhstan,as the August 30 vote on that country’s constitution approaches,President Nursultan Nazarbayev ordered the arrest of a group ofdemonstrators who object to the document. Most polls suggest thatfew Kazakhs know what is in the document, but that a majorityof those likely to vote will approve the document. The big questionnow is whether 50 percent of the country’s eligible voters willtake part in the balloting, the figure required for the constitutionto be approved.

–Moscow threw discussions about ending the war between Armeniaand Azerbaijan into confusion this week when the Russian specialrepresentative to the talks between the two countries suggestedthat they should give Russia control of the critical Lachin corridorbetween Armenia and Karabagh. Azerbaijan rejected the idea outof hand, arguing that Moscow was simply trying to evade its responsibilityto help end the war. Armenia, now facing a domestic politicalcrisis because of the Dro terrorist trial, has not yet respondedin detail. Such a projection of Russian power might end the fightingfor a time, but it would both give Moscow control of much of theTranscaucasus and create new grievances that would soon triggerrenewed fighting.