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Russia: Chechnya War May Continue Till Elections

  • Michael Lelyveld

Boston, 1 December 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Experts at Harvard University are worried that the Russian government may continue the war in Chechnya for another six months to reap the political benefits in the presidential election next June.

Russia analysts meeting Monday at Harvard to preview the December 19 election for the State Duma voiced concerns that Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is riding a wave of popularity because of the war. Some believe that the Kremlin will not end the fighting as long as it pays electoral dividends.

On Sunday, Russia's Romir Institute released a poll showing that Putin's approval rating has jumped from 30 percent to 42 percent in just the past two weeks. Michael McFaul, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the dynamic is very different from the last Chechnya war, when President Boris Yeltsin faced public criticism during his re-election campaign.

"Yeltsin had to end the war in 1996 to win," McFaul told RFE/RL in an interview. "Now the electoral pressure is the opposite. The pressure is to keep it going as long as possible."

Speakers at the conference agreed that Chechnya has blurred the differences between the 28 parties in the race for the Duma because support for the war is so broad.

"I would say the war in Chechnya has transformed the Russian electoral cycle, at least at this point," said Graham Allison, director of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

The war has also displaced the economy and corruption as critical issues, marking a major change from past Russian elections.

"It's virtually impossible to find a cleavage issue," said McFaul. "It doesn't seem to be a campaign about issues." The conference was organized jointly by Harvard's Davis Center for Russian Studies and the Belfer Center.

One consequence of the war is that it has allowed the Kremlin to dominate the Duma election without relying on a party, although Putin endorsed the Yedinstvo, or Unity, bloc this week.

Speakers saw the late support as a far cry from the Kremlin's more active strategies in previous elections of working through "parties of power," such as Our Home is Russia. The party of former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin failed to prevent the rise of the Communist Party and may not be able to draw the necessary 5 percent vote this time to win representation in the Duma.

Recent polls show that the war and Putin's soaring popularity have drawn support from all other major contenders in next year's presidential election, scheduled for June 4, the analysts said. The trend seems to have undercut former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov of the Fatherland-All Russia party, who was considered a favorite three months ago to succeed Yeltsin as president.

"The bloom seems to be off the rose for Fatherland-All Russia, and it's not completely clear why," said Timothy Colton, director of the Davis Center. It appears that Primakov and the party started too early and peaked too early before Putin's star started to rise, said Colton. Clearly, the attacks by Sergei Dorenko of ORT television against the party's co-founder, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov, have been damaging as well.

Experts are concerned that if the war does continue into the presidential election that the Kremlin will choose popularity over economic health and its relations with the West.

So far, higher oil prices and improved tax revenues have allowed Russia to spend freely on the war, even without loans from the International Monetary Fund. But in previous elections, the Russian government has also increased spending in an effort to win votes. That trend has already started with the announcement that pension payments are being increased.

Traditionally, campaign spending has had a delayed effect on the economy with increased inflationary pressures. Russia could start to feel the effects before the presidential vote in June. At the same time, it will come under pressure to make its quarterly payments to the IMF for past loans, whether or not new loans are made, said the Belfer Center's Graham Allison.

The costs of the war, campaign spending and loan payments could all come together at the same time. In that case, the Russian government would be faced with the choice of continuing a popular war or defaulting on its IMF loans. While the consequences of a default would be disastrous, the political benefits of defying the IMF could "look pretty good" to the Kremlin, Allison said.