Chechnya, Yeltsin, liberals
By Alexander Cockburn
Thus far, according to one Russian human rights official in a town in neighboring Ingushetia whither many refugees have fled, between 22,000 and 25,000 Chechens have died in the war since the start of this year, with barely a bleat from the Clinton Administration. So, the U.S. patronage of Yeltsin that has survived his coup and his bombardment of the Russian Parliament remains robust.
Clinton can get away with his couple of bleats because there is no great political pressure here on him to do otherwise. Republicans, puissant in the past in their espousal of the cause of captive nations behind the Iron Curtain, care nothing for Chechnya, and neither do the liberals who have brigaded with Bob Dole in calling for U.S. intervention on behalf of the Bosnian Muslims. Between April 1992 and December 1994, Anthony Lewis wrote some ninety columns urging intervention in Bosnia, mostly by way of high explosives dropped on Serbs. "Is Mr. Bush . . . the wimp he has tried so, hard to deny he is?" he cried in 1992, furious that the bombers had not been unleashed. My colleague Stephane Fitch has tried so hard to deny he columns carefully and finds no mention of Chechnya.
The case for making an uproar about Chechnya, and for threatening a suspension of all aid to Russia unless it instantly declares a cease-fire, is far stronger. Bosnia was part of the Yugoslav federation, a partnership in which it participated freely at the end of World War Il. In 1992 the Bosnian Muslims declared independence with no heed for the views of the Serbian third of the territory's population. The Bosnian Serbs have perpetrated unpardonable barbarities, but they have had legitimate grievances about the behavior of the Muslims and of the Western powers which have recognized the latter's hastily declared independence.
The Chechens are a colonized people who have been conducting a struggle against imperial Russia for more than 200 years. They have as much right to nationhood as, say, Estonia. Under Daoud Beg and Oman Khan, they fought against Russian aggression in the eighteenth century, and under KhaziMollah and Shamil in the nineteenth. The tyranny of the czars gave way to that of Stalin, who killed and deported them in huge numbers. Now it has been Yeltsin's turn.
The racist myths put about by Russians to the effect that all crime in the F.S.U. is perpetrated by Chechens or "the Chechen Mafia" are parroted by many Americans. Maybe this is why both Democrats and Republicans, engulfed in the crime wave hysteria here, are giving Yeltsin the green light. If crime is Russia's number-one problem and if the Chechens supposedly run all "organized crime" in Russia, then the way for Yeltsin to fight crime is to wipe out the Chechens. It's his answer to the crime bill.
Why have the liberals in the press not made more of an issue of Chechnya? Grozny is farther away than Sarajevo, it's true. Sarajevo has suffered from a blockade and artillery bombardment. But it has never been bombed from the air. Grozny has been virtually razed. The factor at work here has been the bipartisan canonization of Yeltsin, supposedly battling "hardliners," though there are signs the Administration may be calculating that he is nearly through.
The Chechens who rallied behind Dudaev say they will fight on, just as they have been doing since before Count Leo Tolstoy described the czar's campaign against them in the eastern Caucasus. In Germany, Chancellor Kohl has been forced by German public opinion to send a tough message to Yeltsin. In this country the Chechens have had the privilege of reading their obituary on the editorial pages of The New York Times, as in these shameful words from last December: "The three-year insurrection cannot be allowed to stand. Though a negotiated political settlement would be the best outcome, Mr. Yeltsin is justified in using military force to suppress the rebellion."