Putin's future tied to his handling of Chechen war

January 11, 2000|By William Pfaff

PARIS -- Democratic Russia, which came to insecure life in 1991 with Boris Yeltsin's election to its presidency, now is at risk. Mr. Yeltsin's delegation of his presidency to Vladimir Putin amounts to a coup d'etat, although one that currently enjoys popular approbation.

An early presidential election has suddenly been called, at a moment when war has produced a patriotic mobilization of the public. Controlled television, radio and press are enlisted to support not only the war, but also a candidate whose sole discernible entitlement to the presidency is that he is waging that war.

All of Russia's other major political figures are withdrawing from the presidential contest, or making their accommodations with the man Mr. Yeltsin anointed to succeed him. They are also making peace with the political-financial "oligarchs" to whom Mr. Yeltsin and Mr. Putin are obligated, and whose control of Russia's wealth and resources is likely now to be enlarged.

A strong suspicion of manipulation lies over the origins of the war against Chechen separatists, which is responsible for Mr. Putin's popularity. The motivation, circumstances and timing of the raids into Dagestan that provoked Russian retaliation, and of the terrorist bombings that followed in Moscow and were attributed, without published evidence, to the Chechens, all remain in doubt.

This series of events has been astonishingly convenient to the interests of the Yeltsin entourage, and to Mr. Putin. It is so convenient as to raise the question as to whether one should be astonished at all.

Six weeks ago, the "first president" (as we are now to call Mr. Yeltsin -- no longer the "former president") seemed certain to see his office fall to hostile political forces with an interest in prosecuting him and his family and associates. Now the situation has been reversed.

However, war is unpredictable. Information on the real state of affairs in Chechnya remains sketchy. Reports other than those provided by the official Russian media, and the media controlled by Mr. Yeltsin's friends, depend on a few journalists, most of them foreigners, who run the extreme risks of work inside Chechnya.

Their dispatches, plus what can be read between the lines of official disclosures, suggest that Russian casualties are higher than officially anticipated, and that progress against the Chechen defenders of Grozny is slower than foreseen by the Russian army command.

Wages of war

The separatist forces are defending their capital chiefly because of the opportunity this provides for killing Russian soldiers. The level of casualties will in turn influence Russian public opinion during the weeks between now and the March election.

Russian forces have unwisely made Grozny's capture their announced objective. Whatever their timetable, this plays into the strength of the irregular Chechen force -- which is that it can maintain the tactical initiative.

The war against "terrorists" is popular but disturbing to the Russian public. The war, and the dazzling political succession in Moscow, have combined to produce what one journalist in Moscow, Piotr Smolar of France's

cf03 Le Figaro,

cf01 describes as something like mass hypnosis.

"Something irreparable, implacable is occurring in this rise to power of President Putin," he writes. "Traumatized and disoriented" by the war, and by the Yeltsin resignation and Putin appointment, Russia's national pride has been flattered by the newly named president's promises of "authority and order." His message, amplified "by a servile media," evokes a response that currently seems indifferent to the fact that Russians know virtually nothing at all about Mr. Putin.

A democratically elected but financially corrupt president, who in December was politically bankrupt and threatened by criminal prosecution, has (ostensibly) passed his powers to his own nominee, who in return has formally exempted the president and his family from prosecution for any possible crimes of malfeasance.

A complicit national media has been mobilized to attempt to assure that Mr. Putin's presidency will be confirmed by voters. Assured of majority support in the Duma, President Putin, as agent of Mr. Yeltsin's clan, will then be in a position to assume virtually unlimited governmental power.

The obvious shadow over Mr. Putin's election is the threat of high Russian casualties in Chechnya during the next 11 weeks, with lack of progress toward ending the war. That could destroy Mr. Putin's popularity.

A taste of democracy

However, there is another obstacle to the success of this coup. Whatever their current bemusement, the Russian people have been politically aroused by a decade of democracy. This has had less to do with their constitution, which is imperfect, or the political practice of the past few years, which has been scandalous, as with their liberation to think and say what they want. The habit of democracy has been installed.

The coup that has occurred has yet to be ratified. Mr. Putin's presidential campaign, which already has begun, and the propaganda and pressures of a media controlled by Mr. Yeltsin's entourage, might eventually be ignored. The public has three months to rebel against manipulation. If it does not, we all, the West included, will have taken a step toward the past.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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