Invasion of Chechnya a Failure, Serious Political Instability in Russia
By Kunio Sakuma, 'Soviet Union' Researcher
The Russian army has had the presidential palace in Grozny under siege for days but has not been able to capture it. Moreover, the situation reveals that while the city center may be surrounded by the Russian army, that army is itself completely surrounded by armed Chechens. Even if the resistance fails, it will be, in the words of Russia's Fourteenth Army Commander General Alexander Lebed, quite meaningless.
Top army staff have openly criticized this military operation. One critic even took the extraordinary step of referring to Defense Minister Pavel Grachev as a 'war criminal.' But while the debate continues, some 1500 Russian army troops have so far died, and many non-combatants, including Russians, have been killed. In addition, the city itself, including residential housing, has been destroyed.
Russia has squandered trillions of rubles (one trillion rubles equals approximately 300 million dollars) destroying what it says is part of its own country. It will take many times that amount to rebuild the city. This comes amid the sad plight of Moscow having no place to house soldiers who have been withdrawn from Germany and the Baltics. While compelling its people to make sacrifices Russia has been able to maintain a reduced budget, and has achieved a certain amount of success in conquering inflation and stabilizing the ruble. But this war could send all these accomplishments down the drain. The inflation rate is already rising at the rate of over fifteen percent a month, and the ruble fell ten percent against the US dollar last December. It is feared that it will not be long before the exchange rate breaks through the one dollar equals four thousand rubles rate which was recorded on Black Tuesday last October. Privatization is not getting anywhere, and if circumstances do not change the transition to a market economy--the cornerstone of Yeltsin's administration--will be thrown into doubt.
On the political front, the parliamentary group known as 'Russia's Democratic Reform' led by E. Gaidar (initially a Yeltsin aide), has joined with the opposition, including Grigory Yavlinsky's group and the Russian Federal Communist party, in criticizing the Chechen invasion. It is quite paradoxical that Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic party and the neo-Fascist Barkashov group, as well as other ultra right wing nationalists, have expressed support for Yeltsin. Yeltsin's political catchword, 'democratization,' apparently lost its luster some time ago. Since the coup attempt of October 1993 was crushed, parliament has lost all authority and 'authoritarian politics' is enjoying a revival. The tough stance taken by the Yeltsin administration in regard to Chechnya should keep 'regional uprisings' under tentative control, but it is quite possible that regional authorities will start to push gradually for an expansion of their own powers.
As the military, political, and economic crisis deepens, Yeltsin's popularity has dropped sharply. In addition, the current view is that he has no chance of being reelected president. Yet, even though a number of names have surfaced as possible candidates for the next presidential election, no decisive rival has appeared, and no politician has directly criticized Yeltsin. As Russia moves toward the post-Yeltsin era these chaotic circumstances are likely to worsen. Moreover, there is concern in Moscow that another coup could occur this year, although no one is willing to say 'who' and 'when' in this regard. Particular attention should be given to the military, including Vice Minister of Defense General Boris Gromov.
It is already too late to find a solution to alleviate these concerns completely. The only option for us is to hope that a cease-fire be agreed to immediately, that the bodies of the war dead be returned, the prisoners of war be exchanged, and that a negotiated solution be reached a quickly as possible.