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The 'Illiberal' Yeltsin

Russian leader's patriotism is tinged with chauvinism

IN his autobiography "Against the Grain," Boris Yeltsin describes himself as "obstinate and prickly." He also comes across as a proud Great Russian. Indeed, some Sovietologists and critics in the Soviet Union note that Mr. Yeltsin shows signs of chvanstvo (high-handedness) toward his own entourage as well as the Russian Republic legislature. Above all, they complain, Yeltsin's ardent Russian patriotism is tinged with chauvinism. Some observers and Soviet freedom fighters, quoting Yeltsin himself, say they suspect Yeltsin has "imperial designs" with respect to the dozens of nationalities dwelling within his own huge republic. Forty percent of Yeltsin's sprawling 11-time-zone wide Russian Soviet Federated Socialist Republic (RSFSR) is inhabited by non-Russians. Most are Ukrainians; the rest consist of non-Slavic peoples - Uzbeks, Tatars, Kazakhs, Chuvash, Bashkirs, Eskimos, and others. The Tatars are among those peoples dwelling for centuries within the confines of Russia whose representatives criticize the republic president for not listening to their demands for unobstructed autonomy. They seek to establish a territory known as Tartaria, but Yeltsin doesn't tolerate their demands. Analysts at the respected Paris-based Institut Francais de Polemologie point out in the latest Geopolitique journal that Yeltsin has expressed himself "illiberally" on nationality affairs. They say he uncriticially supported Mikhail Gorbachev on a new union treaty. The original treaty would have ensured continuation of a Soviet government with strong, centralized powers. Current negotiations are tending toward a much looser federation. Yeltsin's pro-union position, as well as his attitude toward ethnic minorities, is a disappointment to some of his erstwhile non-Russian admirers and defenders of ethnic integrity. One of these is Vyacheslav Chornovil, leader of the Ukrainian national movement, Rukh, and elected Kiev city council deputy. Mr. Chornovil has repeatedly accused Yeltsin of equivocating about the right of self-determination by peoples composing his own Russian-dominated republic. Chornovil recently wrote: "It's clear that Yeltsin doesn't want the empire to break up.... If the empire threatened to break apart, Yeltsin would join forces with Gorbachev.... For us [separatists] Yeltsin will be useful for some time yet. Later, however, we will be in conflict with him." Other reformers, inside and outside the RSFSR, likewise criticize some of the recent Yeltsin-backed industrial agreements and trade treaties signed in Moscow between the Russian Republic and, for example, the Ukraine. They claim that these deals are "one-sided." Chornovil complains that "Yeltsin has found a way of making our [Ukrainian] economy subject to that of Russia." Some of Yeltsin's own statements are causing concern among independence movements. When he signed an agreement with the center last Jan. 8 to stem a center versus republic "budget war," Yeltsin remarked bluntly that the agreement had prevented "the breakup of the Soviet Federation [Union], and this we cannot permit." And earlier, on May 15, 1990, Yeltsin warned against the danger of "chunks of Russia continuing to be gobbled up." On another occasion he said: "I am in favor of sovereignty but within the framework of the USSR." More recently, in his election campaign for the Russian presidency, Yeltsin asserted: "If a strong Russia is built up, the tragic process of the breakup of our great Union could be halted. A strong and sovereign Russia is also the hope of our socialist option being preserved." On the foreign front, Yeltsin has opposed the return of the Japanese Northern Islands. He thus ignores the stated wishes of island residents (including those of many Russians, as revealed in a recent public opinion poll taken there by a Soviet newspaper) to return to Japanese sovereignty. Yeltsin stated firmly in Kaliningrad earlier this year: "Russia will not be signing agreements with anyone. We will not give back the Kurile Islands any more than we will the Kaliningrad region." Some of Yeltsin's closest advisers bear traces of Russophilia. His vice president, Aleksandr Rutskoi, is an outspoken Russian nationalist with close ties to various chauvinist organizations including Pamyat and Otechestvo ("Fatherland"). Yeltsin's team also includes chief military adviser Col. Gen. Dmitri Volkogonov, an erstwhile "Red hawk" on matters concerning military strategy and the West. A similar nationalist bent may be found among a number of leading Russian Republic writers who are reputedly clo se to the leader. To be fair, Yeltsin's inner circle also includes people like Galina Starovoitova, a relatively open-minded adviser on nationalities questions. She has spoken out in favor of national determination for Armenians in the Azerbaijani province of Nagorno-Karabakh and freedom of settlement for the displaced Crimean Tatars. And Yeltsin himself has been a stout defender of the Baltics' drive for independence, to which Yeltsin's Russian Republic has lent support for over a year. When renegotiation of the union treaty is completed, Yeltsin's stand on questions of centralistization versus confederation may prove a litmus test of his commitment to regional autonomy within the union as well as in his own republic.

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