Russia's quagmire

January 25, 1996|By William Pfaff

PARIS -- Russia has a colonial problem. It continues to deal with that problem in ignorance or indifference to the modern history of colonial problems -- including its own, in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan was indirectly a colony after the Communist coup in that country in 1978, and the Soviet military intervention which followed a year later. The Soviet army's subsequent unsuccessful war with nationalist and religious Afghan insurgents contributed -- perhaps decisively -- to the collapse of the Soviet system.

Fifty years ago the Dutch and French went to war to keep their colonies. They might retrospectively be excused for not having realized that World War II had ended the colonial era (but Britain realized it, and left India). It took four years of war in Indonesia to teach that lesson to the Dutch government, and for the Dutch to withdraw. It took from 1946 to 1954 for the French to learn the same lesson in Indochina.

Subsequently, the French refused even to admit that Algeria was a colony. They were like the Russians today in Chechnya. Algeria had been, legally, an integral part of metropolitan France since 1848. Chechnya has been part of Russia since the same period.

The French, like the Russians in the Caucasus, had nonetheless to fight a continuing and inconclusive struggle against ''tribal unrest'' -- meaning the refusal of a part of the population to accept subordination to a European Christian government. In 1954 the revolt against France became widespread, eventually producing Algeria's national independence, in 1962.

Russia's occupation of the Caucasus has never been much of a success. (The ancient Greeks placed the struggles of TC Prometheus in the Caucasus.) Peter the Great first attempted to take the region from the Persians in the 18th century. His successors overran tribal principalities with sketchy allegiances to the Ottoman Turks. Georgia became a Russian province in 1801.

It took another 60 years to subdue the rest of the Caucasian peoples, and the region still was unsettled enough when Hitler invaded for collaboration with the German army to break out. In punishment, Stalin deported a large part of the Chechen and Ingush populations to Central Asia. They were allowed back only in 1956, under Nikita Khrushchev

Now Boris Yeltsin has managed to set not only Chechnya in rebellion against Russia, by his refusal to contemplate compromise with the newest generation of Chechen nationalists, but has inflamed anti-Russian sentiment in neighboring Dagestan, also Muslim, with a botched but devastating assault on the band of Chechen nationalists holding the border village of Pervomayskoye. The leader of the Chechen sympathizers who then hijacked a Turkish ferry headed for Russia said, ''After this, the whole northern Caucasus will explode.''

'We will crush them'

That may or may not happen, but it is a serious possibility, and the last thing Russia today needs. The kind of Russian nationalist chest-pounding that Mr. Yeltsin now indulges -- ''we will crush them'' -- recalls the similar sentiments of 19th-century Russian administrators. ''The only way to deal with this ill-intentioned people is to destroy it to the last.''

Undestroyed, the Chechen nationalists now pose a threat to the precarious balance of Russian government and society. The problem with colonial wars is that they tend to produce revolutions at home rather than abroad.

There is no excuse for Mr. Yeltsin not to have understood that. He lived through the unwon, if not unwinnable, war in Afghanistan. That war contributed to creating the circumstances which brought him to power.

He could have consulted his friends in Washington, to tell him what another quasi-colonial war did to the United States, when the United States took over a struggle against Communist nationalists in Vietnam from the French.

But the Russian president has gone forward like a drunkard, lumbering toward the crash. One wants to cry out, ''Stop! Wake up!'' He is convinced that by the election of pro-Russian candidates in Chechnya in December he has legitimated what he is doing. But the elections took place in conditions of continuing and devastating Russian intervention (against ''bandits''), which officially has thus far cost 50,000 lives.

In any case, as in Vietnam, the real problem is not legitimacy but feasibility -- the likelihood of success. Can Mr. Yeltsin's war succeed? One could ask why Russians even want Chechnya, since they seem to despise the Chechens so. Yes, there is oil and natural gas in the Caucasus (as there was and is in Algeria), and energy infrastructure and pipelines. But rational balances have to be struck. Political and military costs must be weighed against economic return and political possibility.

Recent history has fairly convincingly demonstrated that European governments cannot expect to dominate culturally different and autonomous peoples originally brought under their control through invasion and imperial conquest. Certainly they cannot expect to do so once nationalist motivation has kindled military resistance on a major scale. They cannot do it, that is, without devastating costs to their own society.

But Chechen hostage-taking, and the pervasive sense of humiliation and national frustration felt by the Russian people today, have made Mr. Yeltsin's thundering threats popular, and he is preparing for a presidential election this spring.

The past, once again, threatens the future, in the new and democratic Russia.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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