The time of Yeltsin is gone

Date: Jan, 13, 1995
By Boris Pankin


The leader should serve the people, and not the other way round. For several years, Western experts, political scientists and statesmen have been debating about the proportion of democratic and hegemonistic, liberal and autocratic tendencies in the domestic and foreign policies of President Yeltsin's administration. Guesses were made whether this or that extremist step by the leadership was strategic or tactical. But such considerations have been of little concern to the Kremlin. And if more proof is needed that the ruling regime has neither concepts, strategy, nor logical tactics but only a determination to hold power at any price, no better proof can be found than the invasion of Chechenia.

It is said that Chechenia is an integral part of Russia and Russia has the right to use all means at its disposal to keep this tiny plot of land. The first part of the formula is beyond dispute. As for the second, one could observe that this right was there for three years after the proclamation of Chechen independence. Why was it not used before? Why is it used now, and so shamefully?

Developments in and around Chechenia are but a derivative of an appeal delivered to the autonomous republics in Soviet times when Yeltsin had to score points against Gorbachev: take as much sovereignty as you can swallow.

General Dzhokhar Dudayev took this exercise in rhetoric seriously. For some time, the Yeltsin team ignored this self-proclaimed independence. Only when the pressure from "patriots" of all colours became too intense was it decided to finish with Dudayev. Now Russian citizens, Chechens included, on both sides of the frontline, have to pay for the ambitions of the opposing leaders.

Initially, the West, too, neglected the problem. President Clinton's hasty statement that pacification of Chechenia was an internal affair for Russia was well publicised and struck a key note. This view was more or less repeated in London, Paris, Stockholm and Rome.

Only when the situation began to turn into a bloodbath were appeals made not to spill too much blood. But what does this mean? And who would dare say that blood spilt in a domestic conflict is different from that in a foreign clash? Is it thinner? Or colder?

Let us think logically. If today, 20 years after Moscow signed the Helsinki accord on human rights, missile and tank attacks against a state's own citizens are an internal affair of the Government, why should we confine our blame to Khrushchev, who in the period of denunciation of Stalinism, ruthlessly suppressed workers' protests in Novocherkassk? And why then were the bloody events in Tbilisi, Baku, and, for that matter, in Vilnius not regarded as an internal affair of the Gorbachev administration?

In Chechenia, hundreds and thousands of people, mainly civilians, had to be killed, living quarters, orphanages and schools had to be bombed, cars with refugees had to be smashed by tanks and hundreds of thousands had to flee for safety before Western leaders agreed with what Sergei Kovalev, the former dissident, had been saying from the very beginning of the invasion: human rights violations, death, blood and destruction should not be considered an internal affair of the country in which the slaughter is taking place.

Nevertheless, it has not yet been noticed that the domestic and foreign policy of the present Russian leadership has the same style.

One should look at the present confusion with the extension of Nato. This, too, originated in Boris Yeltsin's generous statement that Russia has no objections to Poland's joining the alliance. Yeltsin was then in Warsaw and was well disposed towards Lech Walesa. But as soon as the nationalists put pressure on the President, opposition to the extension of Nato started to become official Kremlin policy, enthusiastically conducted by Andrei Kozyrev, the "liberal".

Few people know that recent aggravations of the Bosnian conflict have also been provoked in large part by the Russian President. Eager to please his colleagues, he wrote to them on the eve of the Naples summit, where he wanted to be a full participant, roughly the following: "Britain must send a clear signal to the warring sides. If they cannot or do not want to come to an agreement, we will impose a settlement on them." Thus the take-it-or-leave-it map of the partition of Bosnia was drawn up and British and French Foreign Ministers delivered an ultimatum. Eventually, it was not the Serbs who were painted into a corner but the Contact Group which had to resume negotiations. And now the Russian foreign policymakers who started the whole mess are again best friends of the Serbs, blocking one resolution after another in the UN Security Council.

Whatever the outcome of the outrage in Chechenia will be, it is a tragedy for Russia. The politicians in Russia and outside it must reach some unpleasant conclusions. At one time, the communist regime in the Soviet Union would embrace any foreign dictator who would write on his banners the words "Socialism" or "Communism".

I believe that something similar has been happening in Western attitudes towards Yeltsin and his team. On the other hand, everyone who finds himself in opposition to Yeltsin is described as a "diehard" or "anti- reformer".

There can be no doubt that the time of Yeltsin is gone. His Bolshevik, authoritarian reflexes proved stronger than newly acquired democratic aspirations. His destiny is fulfilled.

The author was the last Soviet Foreign Minister and, until a few months ago, the Russian Ambassador to London.

This article was taken from New York Times


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