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Analysis From Washington -- Chechnya Returns

  • Paul Goble



Washington, July 10 (RFE/RL) -- Boris Yeltsin once said that the Chechen war could end his political career. While he was able to escape that fate during the election campaign by agreeing to a ceasefire with the Chechen opposition, the resumption of bloody fighting there this week may again give foundation to his fears.

There are three reasons for this unsettling conclusion.

First, while the Russian military and the Chechens continue to trade charges as to who is responsible for the renewed fighting, the timing of the resumption of hostilities -- almost immediately after Yeltsin's victory -- is likely to lead many to conclude that Yeltsin did not act in good faith earlier when he signed the ceasefire accord just before the first round of the presidential voting.

That will increase cynicism about him both among the Chechens and among Russians. Rising cynicism among the Chechens about Yeltsin will only strengthen the voice of radicals in the Chechen camp who have always argued that no Russian leader can be trusted and that further fighting, not negotiation, is the way to achieve their goal of independence.

Rising cynicism among Russians about Yeltsin on this point imay spread quickly to his many other promises during the campaign. That, in turn, would make it more, not less difficult for him to use his electoral legitimacy to move Russia forward.

Second, the threatening rhetoric of Russian generals on the scene -- one said that the Chechens must comply with all ceasefire provisions, even though Russia has not, or face destruction -- coupled with the statement of Yeltsin's new Security Council chief Aleksandr Lebed to an Italian newspaper yesterday that he would be willing to discuss the "secession" of Chechnya highlights the disorder in Yeltsin's regime.

Sensing these divisions among the Russians, the Chechens may see this as precisely the right time to press their cause militarily. And simultaneously at least some in the Russian government may conclude that the election-produced honeymoon will allow the Russian forces in Chechnya to act with impunity.

To the extent that each side reaches those conclusions during the current round of fighting, that would inevitably mean far more deaths in a war that has already claimed over 40,000 lives since December 1994. Many of those deaths will be among Chechens, but many will be among Russian soldiers.

And that leads to the third reason for believing that the war in Chechnya could still cast a serious shadow over Boris Yeltsin's political future. If the Russian army does indeed advance into the Chechen-controlled mountains south of Grozny, combat losses among Russian soldiers will escalate quickly, particularly if the Chechens concluded that their opponents were seeking to exterminate them.

In the last few months, neither the Russian nor the Western media has given much coverage to the Chechen conflict. But now that the Russian presidential election is over, that could change dramatically, at least in the Russian Federation.

And because Yeltsin had presented himself as a peacemaker during the campaign, the reemergence of this war now could lead many Russians to serious questions about the Russian president's intentions, prompt politicians in the Duma to be more active in opposing Yeltsin's general approach, and thus create the very political problems for the Russian president that he apparently thought he had put behind him.

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