Killing for popularity Chechnya attack: Crackdown on rebels is likely to help Yeltsin's sagging ratings.

January 16, 1996

THE OUTSIDE WORLD may be troubled by President Boris N. Yeltsin's use of brute force to end a Chechnyan hostage situation, but the risky military operation is likely to play quite well at home. His troops are killing members of a ethnic group which is widely despised by Russians. And since many hostages also are Muslims, there is little sympathy for them, too.

Is this analysis shockingly cynical?

The West had better get used to cynicism, which has long been a key ingredient of Russian power politics. Although he has publicly not announced his re-election bid, President Boris N. Yeltsin is clearly in a campaign mode. Since a tough-talking neocommunist-nationalist coalition has been surging recently, he hopes to beat it by out-toughing his rivals.

The recent appointment of spymaster Yevgeni Primakov as foreign minister is evidence of this new Kremlin hard line. So is the replacement of the president's liberal chief of staff with Nikolai Yegorov, a hawk who commanded the Russian military operation in Chechnya at its fiercest stage at the end of 1994.

Mr. Yeltsin is taking a dangerous gamble. He may become a hero if the Chechnya strike succeeds. Unfortunately, Moscow's past military operations in the rebel republic have amply shown that the Russian army today is a far cry from the vaunted communist-era Red Army.

In crises, Moscow is always a hotbed of rumors and conspiracy theories. Mr. Yeltsin's increasing hardline stances are being watched by reformers with grave misgivings. Such fears are understandable. Although Mr. Yeltsin, having sufficiently recuperated from ill health, professes to be in control, many decisions are being made by his shadowy group of powerful aides. If things do not go well in Chechnya, elements in the government may be tempted to use a disaster as an excuse to roll back on democratic reforms, which many of Mr. Yeltsin's countrymen think have gone too far anyway.

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