Free Chechnya

Source: "The New Republic"
Date: Sep, 9, 1996


The Russian Army no longer controls Grozny. The importance of this fact cannot be overstated. In and around the Kremlin, the implications of the fall of Grozny--more precisely, the inadvertent fall of Grozny, to a mere 1,500 Chechen fighters who set out only to harass--are seismic. Even if the Russians retake the Chechen capital, as some factions in the openly feuding Yeltsin administration are trying to do, Grozny's fall heralds the collapse of whatever logic may have buttressed the Clinton administration's waffling about the bloody Russian misadventure in the Caucasus.

Since December 1994, when President Boris Yeltsin sent his armies south to conquer, the U.S., abetted by its European allies, has turned a blind eye to this neo-imperial slaughter. Too much international pressure on Yeltsin over Chechnya, it was said, would undermine the man who represented the last, best hope to preserve democracy in Russia from the Communist-nationalist onslaught. In the interest of "reform," the wasting of thousands of Chechen (and Russian) lives would, regrettably, have to be countenanced.

The election is now over. Boris Yeltsin will remain in power for the next four years or, more likely, until his next heart attack. Through his alliance with General Alexander Lebed, he has co-opted a considerable slice of the nationalist electorate. Surely a little truth-telling by the West about the Chechen mess cannot undercut the forces of "reform" now. So why does the Clinton administration blather on about "the cycle of violence," as White House spokesman Michael McCurry put it, and urge the Russians and Chechens to return to their June 10 agreement? Only last year, Bill Clinton actually compared that deal, conceived by Yeltsin as a pre-election ploy and violated once the vote was over, to Lincoln's efforts to hold the Union together. Even Lebed--and for this reason he is a significant force in Russian politics--feels no compunction about describing Russia's war as "a shame" in which Russian boys are used as "cannon fodder" for the obscure objectives of "corrupt" and incompetent generals. Lebed went so far as to laud the "military discipline and courage" of the "fine" Chechen fighters, whom Yeltsin was recently branding "bandits."

We have no illusions regarding the Chechen forces or their leader, Shamil Basayev, who, in the pursuit of national liberation, has stooped to all the usual tricks of the guerrilla trade: airplane hijackings, massive hostage takings, execution of prisoners. But the Chechen forces are not exactly bandits. Although hardly democrats, they enjoy the overwhelming support of the Chechen population, which has suffered innumerable cruelties at Moscow's hands, not just in the last twenty months but in the days of Stalin and of the tsars.

The Chechen disaster has provided one sobering lesson after another about the wisdom and competence of the Russian state. All its gambits to pacify this contentious territory have failed: covert operations, military intervention, the establishment of a puppet Chechen government, duplicitous negotiations. In a crudely realistic sense, these failures should be reassuring to the West: unable to impose their will within their own borders, the Russian armed forces can hardly be considered a short-term threat to the rest of Europe.

In a deeper sense, though, it's unsettling to contemplate the bloody-mindedness of a government, unreservedly supported by the West for its supposed commitment to reform, that continues to try to divert its people's attention from their problems by demonizing, then bludgeoning, a small and proud ethnos in its midst. "They have hungry miners they should be feeding. Why are they spending all their money destroying Chechnya?" Shamil Basayev mused to Michael Specter of The New York Times.

Anyway, it's not all Russia's money. A good deal of it comes from the International Monetary Fund and, by extension, from Americans. This gives the Clinton administration leverage with which to counsel the Russians, publicly and forcefully, to do what is plainly in their own interest: withdraw from Chechnya, unilaterally; give the Chechens the substance of independent statehood and then haggle about what to call it. But this president and his strategic geniuses are likely to offer up more excuses, or no excuses at all. A few months ago, it was impolitic to tell the truth about Chechnya because there was an election in Russia. Now it will be impolitic to tell the truth about Chechnya because there is an election in the United States. The truth, it appears, must await a day without politics, and in Clintonland that will be a long wait.


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