Opportunity turns sour for Yeltsin WAR IN CHECHNYA

January 18, 1995|By Will Englund | Will Englund,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

MOSCOW -- Imagine a nation, nursing memories of former greatness but with a government in disarray and beset by overwhelming economic difficulties, suddenly finding itself with a chance to lift its head high once more by way of a quick and decisive military victory.

Boris N. Yeltsin, the Russian president, could not resist that temptation.

The breakaway republic of Chechnya had offered him what seemed both a problem and an opportunity. While reformers opposed his decision to invade the mountainous republic, they also understood that a quick victory could strengthen Mr. Yeltsin's hold on power.

But the quick, decisive victory was not to be. The war has turned into a vicious disaster. Mr. Yeltsin has watched his support drain away, his circle of advisers shrink, and perceptions of him darken.

But he himself has shown a certain consistency. The hero who climbed atop a tank in 1991 to thwart the hard-liners' coup is not really so different from the Kremlin chief who ordered tanks into war in the Caucasus.

The 63-year-old Mr. Yeltsin spent more than 30 years working within the Soviet system. He was party boss in the city of Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg), where he was famous for what might be described as a "do-it-now" attitude. He took the same job, and the same attitude, to Moscow's City Hall. Objections, and those who made them, were to be swept aside.

In the late 1980s, Mr. Yeltsin threw off his allegiance to the Communist system, yet held on to some of the old Soviet habits.

He became a genuine man of the people, and he drew his support from ordinary Russians time after time in the political battles he fought over the last five years. But he governed more by cronyism than anything else, and he still had little patience with dissent.

Crucially, over the last five years, the cronies changed.

Where once his buddies were at least nominal reformers, today they are Defense Minister Pavel Grachev, Maj. Gen. Alexander Korzhakov, chief of the presidential security service, and Viktor Ilyushin, first assistant to the president -- all of whom believe that asserting the authority of the government is more important than nurturing democratic forms.

Analysts believe Mr. Yeltsin is still in charge, but that he is surrounded by advisers who have consistently fed him bad information -- about the readiness of the Russian army, the strength and will of the Chechens and the mood of the Russian people.

"Apparently," wrote Yegor T. Gaidar, the former prime minister, "there was no one left in his circle to warn the president that when someone in Russia talks in a trembling voice about 'strengthening the state,' it usually leads to a bloody mess."

Beyond the president's inner circle is Russia's Security Council, which makes most of the government's important decisions. The Security Council consists of the most important Cabinet ministers, the leaders of each house of the parliament, and a few other key deputies. Its chairman is Oleg Lobov, an old Yeltsin crony from the Sverdlovsk days, and it, too, has taken a hard line on Chechnya.

Sergei Yushenkov, head of the Duma's defense committee, said the Security Council is acting as a new Politburo -- the ruling body in the Soviet era.

"Essentially it has usurped power," he said.

Boris Nemtsov, the 35-year-old reform governor of the Nizhni Novgorod region, said yesterday that Mr. Yeltsin's problem is that he does not fully grasp the extent to which changes he himself let loose have transformed Russian society.

Mr. Yeltsin, he said, still thinks he can govern in the old way.

"You have to explain to people every day what you want to do," Mr. Nemtsov said. "If you can't understand that there have been major changes in the mind of the population, and you don't understand that you now have to make policy in the open, then there will be strong resistance to what you are trying to do.

"It was absolutely imperative for Yeltsin to explain why it was necessary to use force in Chechnya, to explain before and not after."

Mr. Yeltsin, writing about himself in his recent autobiography, "The Struggle for Russia," admits to being impulsive, moody, beset at times by headaches, depression and insomnia. He writes wistfully about the days when he could go to a local bathhouse and absorb what ordinary people were feeling and saying.

He acknowledges that he is much better at rising to do battle than at overseeing the long and often tedious workings of government.

By autumn, Chechnya apparently looked like the right battle to fight.

It was a place where Dzhokhar M. Dudayev had been thumbing his nose at Moscow for three years.

On Dec. 11 Mr. Yeltsin sent in the army to clean up the mess, only to find the military stumbling toward disaster instead. Now he is in danger of destroying not only Chechnya but the movement that brought him to power.

"His policy has led to a virtually complete break with Russia's democratic movement, which means that he has almost no chance of winning an election in 1996," says Otto Latsis, a member of the presidential advisory council.

That point is seconded by people like Mr. Gaidar and Sergei Kovalyov, who as commissioner of human rights has sharply criticized the Chechnya invasion, spending much of the past month in the capital of Grozny.

As unhappy as they are with Mr. Yeltsin, they ask this question: If parliament were to impeach the president, as Sergei Yushenkov, head of the defense committee, has suggested, or if Mr. Yeltsin were to resign, as Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of one reform faction, has urged, what then?

Mr. Gaidar suggested that the only likely alternative is a military coup.

It would be far preferable, he said, for Mr. Yeltsin simply to rid himself of those hard-line advisers who, in the Chechnya debacle, "pushed him beyond his better instincts."

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