Chechnya propelling Putin to all-but-inevitable win

Acting leader may face only token opposition in Russian elections

January 06, 2000|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- Vladimir V. Putin has built his popularity and his steamroller campaign for president entirely on one issue, Chechnya, and yesterday his victory in coming elections started to appear all but inevitable.

Appointed acting president only six days ago, Putin may be facing only token opposition when Russians go to the polls.

A leader of one of the most significant opposition blocs, Gov. Vladimir Yakovlev of St. Petersburg, said yesterday that his group, All Russia, would support Putin for president rather than its putative candidate, Yevgeny M. Primakov.

As they voted yesterday to approve Putin's proposal to hold elections March 26, several members of the upper house of parliament said it was virtually pointless for anyone to oppose him.

Grigory Yavlinsky, a liberal who has kept his distance from the Kremlin over the years, said he would run for president, as he did in 1996, but told a radio interviewer "it would be silly to think about defeating Putin."

Even the Communists, Russia's largest political party, are expected to launch at best a pro forma campaign.

Six months ago such unanimity would have been unthinkable.

But the past six months have witnessed a war in Chechnya and a relentless, concerted campaign in the press that have catapulted a man who was practically unknown into the forefront of Russian politics.

In the process, Russia has adopted a new tone. Bellicosity and a sense of isolation are dominant today.

Moscow says it is fighting international terrorism in Chechnya, but it sees Europe and the United States beginning to line up against it. The more criticism that comes from the West, the more Putin's government seems determined to go it alone.

And so far, that's played well here.

A photo exhibit opening yesterday provided a small but telling example of the mood these days.

Yugoslav support

Borislav Milosevic, the Yugoslav ambassador to Russia (and brother of President Slobodan Milosevic), welcomed Muscovites to a display of pictures documenting damage done to clinics, offices and bridges last spring by NATO airstrikes against Yugoslavia.

In his remarks, Milosevic immediately brought up Chechnya and drew a distinct parallel with Kosovo.

"Putin has said that the most important thing is to defend the integrity of the country. And he's right," Milosevic said. "Yugoslavia acted to protect its territory from terrorists in Kosovo, just as Russia is doing now in the Caucasus."

Russia, he said, is making a "great contribution" in the fight against international terrorism. But the West is talking about a "human catastrophe" in Chechnya and about the need for peace talks, he said. "It's the same kind of music we heard with Kosovo."

A Russian volunteer named Alexander Mukharev, who said he fought in Bosnia in 1992 and in Kosovo last year, talked about the "proud and great people of Serbia." The wars in Yugoslavia, he said, were a "foretaste" of what Russia can expect.

Vsevolod Bogdanov, representing the Union of Journalists of Russia, said, "The exhibition is a reminder of what might happen to us -- if we act like sheep."

"There's a direct connection between what happened in Kosovo and what's happening in Chechnya," said one of the Russian organizers of the exhibit, Valery Nikiforov.

The Serbs were eventually forced to withdraw from Kosovo because of the NATO attacks. The outcome of the war in Chechnya is likely to be considerably different. But a legacy of the fighting in the Caucasus, so avidly pursued by Putin and so much to his political benefit, is already becoming evident -- a sense of angry pride mixed with resentment toward the outside world.

A few critical voices

There are, to be sure, a few voices in Russia critical of the operation in Chechnya. Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, whose party did poorly in the elections last month, has been cautiously trying to stake out a position against some aspects of the war.

More forthright opposition has come from Yavlinsky.

In an article this week in Obshchaya Gazeta, he wrote, "A clear change of objectives has occurred over the past month. Instead of an anti-terrorist operation in Chechnya we now see a large-scale war that is more reminiscent of revenge than a fight against terrorism. Instead of bottling up terrorists and conducting special operations to destroy them, criminal ultimatums are being issued, civilians are suffering, and the refugee situation remains unchanged. All of this is timed to coincide with political events in Moscow, i.e. the elections. This kind of `operation' can bring nothing but shame."

But as he noted, his party did its worst in the parliamentary vote and has attracted a huge amount of scorn from others.

Yavlinsky went on to argue that the architects of the war, and their defenders, are promoting the rise of nationalism and fascism in Russia.

But, up to now, their political savvy has been unassailable. Putin is unquestionably the most popular Russian politician in a long time. The war in Chechnya appears to be entering a new and far more difficult phase -- with Russian troops bogged down on the approach to Grozny and casualties apparently mounting every day -- but with less than 12 weeks to go before the election, Putin and his backers have little to fear short of a complete catastrophe.

And even in that case, Putin can borrow a page from Slobodan Milosevic -- he can always run against the West.

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