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Russia: Analysis From Washington--Grozny the Khodynka Field of Today

  • Paul Goble

Washington, August 9 (RFE/RL) -- The bloody fighting in Chechnya this week seems certain to cast a shadow over the inauguration of Boris Yeltsin, just as the tragic deaths on Moscow's Khodynka field in 1896 cast a shadow on the coronation of Nicholas II.

And as with the case of the last tsar, so too now, these shadows are likely to extend well into Yeltsin's second term as Russian president.

Comparisons between the Yeltsin inaugural and Nicholas II's coronation have been much in evidence this week. Both Russian and Western journalists have noted that the two events are separated by almost exactly 100 years. And Russian officials putting together the Yeltsin ceremony have publicly stated that they have used the tsarist coronation ceremony as a model.

But one parallel between the two that has been largely ignored concerns the public tragedies associated with both. In 1896, hundreds of Russians were trampled to death on a field in Moscow where souvenirs were being distributed. Today, hundreds of Russians and Chechens are engaged in a bloody battle in Chechnya, the latest outburst of a war Yeltsin told Russian voters he would end peacefully.

In his diaries, Nicholas II frequently wrote that this event was yet another harbinger that his life and his reign were doomed to be unhappy. Because of what this latest battle says about Chechnya, about Yeltsin himself and about what is now likely to happen there, Yeltsin may reach a similar conclusion.

Angry at Yeltsin for failing to live up to his earlier commitments to them and furious at being dismissed by Russian officials as a ragtag group of bandits, the Chechens decided to act to embarrass the Russian president during his inauguration.

And so far, the Chechen forces have demonstrated that they remain a serious force to be reckoned with, that they are capable of launching large, coordinated and successful attacks on Russian positions, and that they will not be defeated in the field unless Moscow introduces far more troops and suffers far more casualties than it has so far.

At the same time, Yeltsin has shown himself to be the chief author of past and present Russian attacks on the Chechens. Two months ago, as part of his election campaign, he promised to make peace, dismissed the supposed "hawks" in his entourage, and even signed an agreement with the Chechen opposition.

But after winning reelection, the Russian president quickly reversed course, ordered new Russian military attacks, and even forced his new Security Council chief Aleksandr Lebed to back away from public suggestions that the Chechens might be allowed to secede.

As a result, Yeltsin stands revealed for what he is: the real author of the Chechen war. As one diplomat told an American correspondent in Moscow: "the party of war turned out to be a party of one. His name is Boris Yeltsin."

Because the Chechens remain stronger on the ground and more committed than many had thought possible and because Yeltsin remains more committed to suppressing them than many had hoped, the possibilities for a compromise settlement, one in which each side could back off from its current hard line, seem to be receding.

Instead, as each side presses its case, one of two more radical and very different outcomes seem to be ever more likely: independence for Chechnya or a Russian genocide there. Yeltsin is unlikely to accept the former, especially now, even though the Chechens will accept no less. And neither Russians nor the West should tolerate any possibility of the latter, even if Moscow demonstrates the capacity to do it.

But in the current situation and in the absence of outside pressure, the war in Chechnya could soon lead to precisely that tragic outcome.

As a result, Yeltsin may remember the current bloodshed in Grozny just as often and just as bitterly as Nicholas II recalled the tragic deaths on Khodynka field.