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Yeltisn's Two Campaigns

  • Paul Goble



Washington, April 9 (RFE/RL) - At his meeting on Chechnya tomorrow (Wednesday), Russian President Boris Yeltsin will be trying to win two interrelated campaigns: his own re-election and a Russian victory in Chechnya. He is unlikely to achieve both.

In the past week, Yeltsin has very publicly tried to end a conflict that is increasingly unpopular in Russia itself. He has offered the Chechens what he says would be "more autonomy" than any other Russian region now has, and he has appointed a team - including the presidents of Tatarstan and Kazakhstan - to negotiate with Dudayev.

These steps - which reverse his earlier positions - have gained Yeltsin some support among the Russian electorate, but they have not ended Russian protests against the war and do not appear to be leading to peace. Instead, they have had three consequences that could make the Chechen war even more of aproblem for the Russian president than it has been up to now.

First, by backing away from his earlier stands, Yeltsin has sent a signal to the Chechens that continuing to fight will bring them victory. Indeed, Yeltsin's remarkable decision to include the president of a foreign country - Kazakhstan - in the Russian negotiating team represents an implicit if unintended recognition of Chechen independence.

Second, Yeltsin's decision to increase his personal involvement in the prosecution of the war will only underscore his decisions in the past and his tendency to shift gears on any and all issues. Yeltsin's opponents such as Grigoriy Yavlinsky are likely to be able to make the war more of an issue than it has been in the past.

And third, and perhaps most immediately important, the intensity of fighting has actually increased over the past week precisely at a time when Yeltsin said he was seeking peace. For the Russian President, that is a particularly serious development.

It suggests that Yeltsin is either duplicitous in his statements or not in control of his army. Neither interpretation does him any good at home.

Perhaps surprisingly, Yeltsin has decided that suggestions he is not in control of the army will have fewer negative consequences for him in this electoral season than implications that he is being dishonest with the Russian people and the Chechens.

Yesterday, for example, Yeltsin and his advisors suggested that they would work to end what they called Russian military "adventurism" in Chechnya. Blaming the army won't win him any friends among the officer corps, and seeking to shift the blame to the generals is unlikely to be credible, given their own protests about the fighting.

How then to explain what Yeltsin is doing? Here too three factors seem to be at work:

First, Yeltsin does not really want to end the war, something that might require him to make politically unpopular decisions. He only wants to appear to be working in that direction. As Yeltsin's spokesman Sergei Medvedev said yesterday, "The president is not going to despair if the negotiations at the first stage do not achieve the desired results."

Second, if Yeltsin is in a bind, so are the Chechens. They know that Moscow will only deal now but not after the elections. If Yeltsin is reelected, he can and will be brutal. If Gennady Zuganov is voted in, he may be more forthcoming initially -- to prove to Western leaders that he is not the communist they fear -- but will soon be brutal as well.

And third, Yeltsin has a third audience in mind: the West. The leaders of the G-7 countries will be coming to Moscow later this month. And Yeltsin certainly hopes to impress them with his strategy for peace.

That may be the only campaign he can be sure of winning.
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