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Yeltsin's Chechen Move - a Massive Backfire

If Moscow continues to send tanks instead of aid to the Caucasus, it may find a new federation of peoples on its southern flank

TERRITORIAL integrity may now be the only integrity that Boris Yeltsin's government has left. The deepest tragedy of Chechnya is that Russia's democratic development is being sacrificed on the altar of mythical short-term ``stability.'' The dynamics of polarization in the Caucasus, in other regions of the Russian Federation, and in Russian politics are fueling the very fires of territorial disintegration that Federation members hoped to avoid.

Only people ignorant of the history and culture of the Caucasus would undertake a military campaign in mid-winter against a mountain people who invented a version of guerrilla warfare and resisted Russian domination for a century. President Yeltsin's government risks more of its multiethnic citizens' lives - and its own survival.

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Foreign reaction, unforgivably mild at first, is turning unforgiving as the full story of the Grozny carnage is told.

German, French, and Scandinavian leaders have demanded protection of human rights and offered mediation. Indeed, Western waffling on human rights has never benefited the fledgling Russian democratic movement. Leaders like Sergei Kovalev, Father Gleb Yakunin, and Elena Bonner have called for Western condemnation of the invasion.

The Chechen are a Veinakh-speaking people whose identity was forged in part in the turmoil of the Russian Empire's 19th-century frontier wars. They fought unsuccessfully for independence after Russian collaboration with the Germans in World War II. With other ``punished peoples'' they were deported to Kazakhstan; they returned to a shrunken homeland in 1957.

Current Chechen leaders, including President Dzhokar Dudayev, bitterly remember their exile, and more recent events. When Chechens refused to sign the Federal Treaty in March 1992, their declaration of independence was more serious than other republics declaring ``sovereignty.'' But like the Tatars, who also refused to sign the treaty, the Chechens might have been lured into the new federation if Moscow officials had swallowed some of their pride and negotiated a relationship benefiting all parties.

Since 1991 Russian policy has zig-zagged. A weak Russian military incursion was rebuffed in 1992, sparking Chechen nationalism. In 1993 negotiations stalled because Yeltsin refused to acknowledge the legitimacy of Mr. Dudayev's government. Agreements granting unprecedented economic sovereignty for Tatarstan and Bashkortostan could have been partial models for Moscow and Grozny.

Last fall, even when Moscow was encouraging his internal opposition, Dudayev offered high-level negotiations. Instead, Yeltsin supported an opposition faction. This policy backfired when Russians fighting with the opposition were captured, and when Yeltsin's erstwhile political nemesis Ruslan Khasbulatov (released from jail) appeared overly influential. A last-ditch Moscow negotiating team returned home frustrated ``from above.''

The Chechens have been demonized by Russian government officials and the Russian people. Yeltsin called Dudayev's regime a ``bandit'' Islamic government, and blamed him for all Chechen ``mafia'' activities. Yet how can a whole people be ``traitors,'' ``criminals,'' or ``fundamentalists''? Similar mythologizing caused much bloodshed and misery under Stalin.

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Even widespread prejudice against ``blacks,'' as Russians call virtually all the peoples of the Caucasus, has not led to popular support for the invasion. Few see reason for wanton destruction on Russian territory, or for more Russian teenagers to die in the Caucasus mountains.

Russia's Army, undermanned, underfunded, and underappreciated, is now undermined. Dissension among top officers is common. Front-line commanders reject orders, citing the constitution. Raw recruits describe being transported to the ``front'' under lock and key, with no briefings. Afghan veterans say they never saw anything this brutal. If Yeltsin needed the Army to help with a genuine threat, no one knows if he would get that help.

The economic costs of the campaign threaten to destroy three years of modest progress in fighting inflation and stabilizing the economy. Fulfilling Yeltsin's promise to repair the war damage would bust the budget for a decade. One wonders whether the ``nationalist socialists'' responsible for this tragedy knew that it could force abandoning market reforms in favor of a return to state control.

The dynamics of polarization are so out of control that Moscow has bombed Russian residents of Grozny but helped unify other North Caucasus groups. In 1992 an unwieldy political amalgam with its own parliament adopted the name ``Confederation of the Peoples of the North Caucasus.'' Its president is a Kabardei academic, Musa Shanibov. Dudayev is active in the organization. Anger has provoked this diverse parliament, which met on New Year's weekend, to further secessionist sentiment. If Moscow nationalists continue to send tanks, in a few years a new federation of North Caucasus peoples could exist on Russia's southern flank.

In some 20 other republics of the Russian Federation, and in potentially restive regions, people are watching. Regional and republic leaders met in Chuvashia Jan. 5 for consultations.

For now, the price of demanding complete independence is too high. But in the longer term, some may decide the costs of remaining in an undemocratic, unreformed and unrepentant Russia are greater. Few republics have the requisite non- Russian ethnic majority, boundaries, legacy of independence, and resources to secede outright. Some, such as Tuva, are heavily dependent on Moscow subsidies. Yet subsidies will not buy loyalty forever.

In the 15 months since he shelled the Russian White House, Yeltsin has disappointed the hopes of most of those who supported him. Far from using his ``victory'' to set the nation on the path of democracy, he has become increasingly aloof and arbitrary. No solid institutional basis for democratic development exists. The 1995 and 1996 elections are in doubt.

The independence of Chechnya and much of the North Caucasus is more likely now than it was when Russian troops began their assault. But heroic defense of their homeland does not make the Chechen leaders democrats. The regime that eventually emerges there is likely to be more radicalized, militant, and Islamic than the 1992 Dudayev government.

Western policymakers are caught in an impossible dilemma: Support Russia's territorial integrity or face the advent of potentially worse regimes. In any case, fragmentation may occur; Russia has lost its credibility as a peacekeeper in the former USSR.

The US and NATO have little leverage. But we do not have to parrot bogus Russian analogies to the American Civil War. Ethnically based homelands in the Russian Federation are not states. We can support federalism and negotiated agreements while still condemning wanton murder, massive violations of human rights, and other self-destructive behavior. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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