Washington, 20 September 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Russian parliamentarian and opposition leader Grigory Yavlinsky startled a Washington audience Thursday with strong criticism of President Boris Yeltsin.
In an assessment of political and economic trends in Russia, he blamed Yeltsin for starting the war in Chechnya, calling it a crime and "a real genocide" that has killed more than 100,000 people.
Earlier this month, Russian presidential adviser General Alexandr Lebed put the death toll at roughly 80,000.
Yavlinsky also criticized the West for failing to speak out more aggressively against the Russian government's actions in Chechnya. He suggested Western reticence was due in part to concerns that such criticism might weaken Yeltsin's position.
Yavlinsky compared this to what he said was a similar dilemma over the 1936 Berlin Olympics, when Western democracies decided to participate but said that did not mean they supported Hitler.
Yavlinsky, a failed presidential candidate whose Yabloko reform bloc got less than ten percent of the vote in Russia's June presidential election, also took Yeltsin to task for Russia's economic woes and what he said is a lack of leadership in the Kremlin.
The years of Yeltsin's presidency have failed to strengthen state institutions and Yeltsin's time is over, he said.
"Yeltsin's' historical time is finished," Yavlinsky said, adding that "the country is in a difficult transition period and needs a different leadership."
Yavlinsky was the key speaker at a Washington conference, sponsored by the Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty Fund, a group financed with private contributions and dedicated to improving East-West understanding. The organization is a separate entity from RFE/RL broadcasting but works closely with the Radios.
Thursday's conference, attended by scholars, former U.S. officials, and Eastern embassy representatives as well as journalists and RFE/RL supporters, explored the status of political reform and press freedom in Russia and Central Europe and some problems of NATO expansion.
The audience listened intently as Yavlinsky said bluntly that "expansion of NATO is bad for Russia" in part because many people will see it as a threat and that is likely to strengthen the position of military hardliners.
But he said the Russian government's actions in Chechnya make it difficult to argue against NATO expansion and in any case, Russia has no business telling its neighbors what alliances they should enter or should not enter.
Another speaker, defense specialist Jeffrey Simon, pointed out that the promise of NATO membership has often motivated governments to implement reform and moderate policies.
He expressed concern that countries excluded from the first group to join NATO will feel they no longer have to continue reforms.
Simon said Slovakia is unlikely to be among the three or four Central European countries in the first tranche of new NATO members.
"How do we keep Slovakia and others engaged," he asked.
Kati Marton, head of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which monitors freedom of the press around the world, said Slovak Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar is listed by the committee as one of the worst offenders against press freedoms.
"The situation in Slovakia is dire indeed," she said, adding that she has met twice with Meciar to advocate better treatment of independent media in Slovakia and is trying to set up a third meeting with him.
Marton, wife of Richard Holbrooke, former U.S. Assistant secretary of State and architect of the Dayton peace accords on Bosnia, was in the Balkans recently.
She told conference participants that it is still too dangerous for Bosnian journalists to go far from Sarajevo. Only 20 percent of the country is accessible to them, she said.
Marton called for stronger pressure from Western governments on Balkan leaders to improve press freedoms there.