Chechnya - What Options Are Open To The West?

While recognising the legitimacy of the Russian government's drive to eliminate the destabilising threat posed by Chechnya's uncontrolled militants, Russian tactics in the republic has appalled much of the international community.

Chechnya - What Options Are Open To The West?

While recognising the legitimacy of the Russian government's drive to eliminate the destabilising threat posed by Chechnya's uncontrolled militants, Russian tactics in the republic has appalled much of the international community.

Friday, 10 December, 1999

The ultimatum to the inhabitants of Grozny to get out or die was a final, chilling warning of the lengths to which the Russian military is prepared to go to crush Chechen resistance.

Words of caution from anxious foreign ministers turned to threats of sanctions if the Russians persisted in waging total war against those remaining in territory not yet controlled by the Russian army, whether fighters or civilians.

But does the outside world actually have the necessary levers to compel the Russian government to modify the conduct of the campaign and persuade it to seek a political, negotiated solution to the Chechen problem?

The means at the West's disposal look dismally few. President Yeltsin does not hesitate to tell the West not to interfere, reminding US President Bill Clinton of Russia's nuclear power status.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin came up through the ranks of the FSB and has a similarly robust sense of where Russian national interests lie. He will make no concessions if he believes they may further weaken Russia's already weakened statehood.

Protection of vital national interests had already become a major theme in Russian politics before the Chechen troubles began, with Russia feeling increasingly beleaguered and under pressure from the West.

Relations have soured across a range of issues - endless negotiations with the IMF, money laundering scandals and suggestions of improper financial conduct within the President's family, Kosovo, NATO expansion and so on. The honeymoon with the United States was definitely over.

But if Russia had hopes of building bridges with Europe to compensate, the reaction of European leaders during the past weeks to Russia's campaign in Chechnya will have left the Russian government under no illusions.

"There is a chill wind blowing", one Russian official remarked apropos the most recent IMF negotiations and the linking of loans to Russian actions in Chechnya, "and it is coming from Europe".

The verbal pressure on the Russian government is intense, but it would be extremely difficult for them to make concessions to the Europeans and Americans on domestic grounds alone. The campaign in Chechnya was broadly welcomed by the Russian public, which was profoundly shaken by the apartment bombings in Moscow and Volgodonsk, and is still accepted.

It will only become a problem for Putin, who is personally associated with the conduct of the war, if the television news programmes begin to show pictures of burning Russian armoured vehicles or rows of Russian dead. It is certain that no concessions to outside influences will remain an essential theme of government behaviour during the election campaign.

Any weakening of the tough approach would provide platform fodder for the Communists and OVR, the Luzhkov - Primakov party, and weaken Edinstvo, the party newly created by the government and which opinion polls report as increasingly attractive to the electorate.

Furthermore, while the outside world, including the Islamic nations, calls for a negotiated settlement, the Russian government has a real problem over a figure they can actually hold talks with.

Putin's preconditions for negotiations are patently beyond the reach of anybody in Maskhadov's position, but the fact remains that it would be extremely difficult to conduct serious discussions with a leader who in the past proved unable to impose the law or any reasonable form of civilian order in his country.

There are, though, few alternatives, though Putin made much of the Chechen mufti Akhmad Khadzhi Kadirov recently, after the latter secured the bloodless surrender of Chechnya's second city, Gudermes.

The West's political options are similarly restricted as long as Yeltsin is in no mood to moderate the campaign. The openly pro-Western politicians are out of office and politically sidelined.

The only major Russian politician to criticise the government's handling of Chechnya is Grigory Yavlinsky. He has consistently called for an end to indiscriminate bombing and shelling and for negotiations to begin. The problem is that Yavlinsky's party, Yabloko, though it represents a significant voice in the Duma, is not a serious contender for power.

The West has no interest in strengthening the Communists' chances in the elections, or even those of OVR, a pragmatic, but by no means pro-Western grouping, and over-forceful intervention would play straight into their hands. Nor have Western leaders identified a convincing negotiating partner in Chechnya.

Other levers, such as trade, aid or finance, will have extremely limited influence. IMF credits have become a financial merry-go-round, and actual or threatened defaults on international loans, whether by central or regional government, are an almost everyday occurrence.

Russia is so deeply in hock to Western banks that it has become a problem for the banks rather than Russia. There is deep cynicism in Russia towards outside assistance of any sort, rendering threats to cut aid largely impotent. Inward investment has slowed to a trickle.

The Russian government, as BP Amoco knows to its cost, is ready to ignore even the legitimate rights of foreign investors in order to promote domestic interests. The recent improvement in economic indicators has come as a result of domestic investment.

Sanctions will not worry the Russians. There is little the outside world can do other than place moral pressure on Yeltsin to moderate the campaign and minimise the suffering caused to non-combatants.

This week, acting against medical advice, Yeltsin flew to China where he immediately secured support for Russian action in Chechnya. This was predictable, given China's own problems with Uighur and Tibetan separatists, and comforting. It may even be useful when Russia comes to face the EU foreign ministers next week in Helsinki.

However, despite Yeltsin's tough talk in Beijing on Thursday, the events of recent days show that he and his government are prepared to heed outside criticisms. Russia does not wish to revert to the status of a pariah state. Events on the ground in Chechnya may provide some clues.

At the start of the campaign, Russian forces moved to recover the ground north of the Terek River. Here, a policy was employed of restoring civil authority as soon as the army moved in, by re-opening schools, paying pensions arrears and other confidence-building measures for the civilian population.

The climax of this policy was the peaceful delivery of Gudermes to the army by the mufti. That was then overshadowed by the very aggressive attempts to subdue the Chechen strongholds in and around Grozny. Now, though, we may be seeing the first signs that the present gung-ho approach of the army commanders is becoming an embarrassment.

Much attention was given early in the campaign to the demands from the military leadership to be allowed to reverse the humiliation of the first Chechen war, or they would resign. The government was effectively silent, and let the generals get on with it.

Significantly, the military was left to attempt to clarify the meaning of the leaflets dropped on the unfortunate civilians in Grozny. With an OSCE fact-finding mission to Chechnya slated to begin on 14 December, the generals' actions during the next few days will open to much closer scrutiny than has been possible until now.

The generals lost the first war by underestimating the fighting capacity of the Chechens and Russian mothers' resistance to losing their boys in a senseless conflict. They revised tactics the second time round to minimise Russian casualties.

This time the politicians underestimated the international repercussions. Events in the next few days will show whether the storm of international criticism, in which Russia's closest friends in Europe - France and Germany - have been particularly vocal, has had an effect.

Frank Williams, a former head of the BBC World Service's Russian Service, is Project Director for BBC World Service's Broadcast Journalism Training Centre in Ekaterinburg.

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