Fiasco in Chechnya

January 05, 1995|By WILLIAM PFAFF

Paris -- The attack on Chechnya has been an attempt by Boris Yeltsin's government to solve one crisis by creating another. It has been an attempt to distract Russians from the country's dramatic political and economic situation by giving them a successful war of colonial reconquest in the Caucasus. This has gone wrong, and the result may be very bad.

The gamble deserves to have gone wrong since it was not only cruel but stupid. There was no real justification for this attack -- for all this killing and destruction, and for the precedents that now have been set for Moscow's dealings with the non-Russian peoples once part of the Czarist and Soviet empires.

The separatist sentiments that produced the Chechens' declaration of independence three years ago would sooner or later have run into the wall of reality. Chechnya has no place to go; its capacity to survive as an independent nation and economy is all but non-existent. As serious Chechens have acknowledged, they would eventually have had to come to terms with Russia and asked for some form of reintegration into the federal economy.

Mr. Yeltsin's fiasco undermines his authority and obviously could drive him, and those around him, further onto a course that alienates Russia from the West, weakening its economy and society even more than is now the case.

Mr. Yeltsin's political position has declined since liberal forces failed in the parliamentary elections in December 1993. A public-opinion poll published in Moscow Sunday said that 65 percent of those consulted have lost confidence in his leadership. The attack on Grozny was meant to reconsolidate his position by pre-empting the nationalist cause. However, an inquiry sponsored by the Interfax press agency says 75 percent of Russia's voters are against what he has done in Chechnya.

Conditions in Russia have -- for the majority -- grown worse under Mr. Yeltsin, even if he is scarcely to blame. The social costs of economic reform have been immense. Gennadi Gerasimov, the spokesman for Mikhail Gorbachev when the latter was the Soviet Union's president, recently called attention to the 10 percent fall in male life expectancy in Russia since 1989. There was an 800,000 excess of deaths over births in 1993. The suicide rate in 1993 was up by 43 percent over 1991. There is despair. Fathers are killing themselves because they cannot provide for their children. Couples are refusing to have children.

The cost of the war against the Chechen separatists will make the economic situation worse than it already is. Nineteen ninety-four saw 320 percent inflation, an improvement on the previous year's 940 percent, certainly, but on the rise again since the ruble's plunge against the dollar in October.

Mr. Yeltsin's economic minister has warned that the internationally agreed stabilization plan for the ruble already has been jeopardized by the Chechen affair. Thirteen billion dollars of internationally promised credits have been incorporated into Russia's 1995 budget. This aid could be halted. The IMF and the West have no interest in retrospectively financing the Chechen war.

Russia desperately has needed economic progress and the means to recover national self-respect after the fiasco of communism's collapse and what amounted to a Russian surrender to the West's ideas and values. The turbulence of reform has already made those ideas and values seem much less convincing than in 1990-91.

Self-respect is what the nationalists' rhetoric has been all about. What the Yeltsin government has done in Chechnya now has produced a further national humiliation. It worsens the economic plight of the country, alienates the West and frightens the life out of other ex-Soviet republics -- the Baltic states and Ukraine in particular.

The extreme nationalist opponents of the Yeltsin government today remain divided and have no coherent or realizable program, although they speak to the fears and frustrations of many. They could become a serious force under leaders less disreputable and irresponsible than Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

The country's democrats have perhaps the better chance to re-establish themselves as a result of the Chechnya affair. Liberal parliamentarians and the independent press have resisted the war and seem to have public opinion substantially behind them. The army has been badly used and itself humiliated. Those in charge of it, and of the most important economic sectors and industries, while they may not be liberals, are realists, and what Russia now needs, after this plunge into violence, is realism.

That can come. The situation remains an open one despite the government's clumsy lies and attempts to control information. The Western capitals' reactions have been slow and confused. The West needs now to insist upon one thing above all in its communications to Mr. Yeltsin and his associates: that a government that attempts to settle internal problems with tank columns and infantry assaults cannot expect trust and cooperation from the democratic community of nations. Conduct has consequences.

8, William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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