West's worst nightmare

Date: February, 1995
Source: Living Marxism #76
By Joan Phillips


For years, the West has denounced the Kremlin as an oppressor and demanded freedom for all of the republics in what was the Soviet Union. Yet when Russian bombers pounded Grozny, the capital of the breakaway republic of Chechnya in December 1994, Western governments either stayed silent or stated that it was an internal Russian problem, and that president Boris Yeltsin had no choice but to suppress the secessionists by military means. Western leaders backed Yeltsin's war against the Chechens out of concern for their own futures. Looking at the Russian crisis, they see a deeply unpopular government, public disaffection from the institutions of the state, and a fragmenting central authority. In their eyes, it must all seem frighteningly like a more dramatic version of the situation at home. Chechnya is the insecure Western elites' worst nightmare, because it provides a glimpse of what they fear might happen to them in the future.

Free world on hold
In these circumstances, the Western authorities have abandoned any talk of freedom and democracy in the East. Their only concern now is to see the maintenance of stability and control, whether by Yeltsin or somebody else. That is why they backed his efforts to blow the Chechen rebels off the map - and why they raised criticisms of the military campaign only when it became clear that the botched invasion was making matters worse. Western societies are suffering from a permanent legitimacy crisis. Since the end of the Cold War, the political systems of every capitalist nation have come unstuck. The collapse of the Soviet Union deprived the West of a decrepit, undemocratic system against which a less-than-perfect capitalist order could look good. Today capitalism is having to sell itself on its own merits. And without the negative alternative of communism, the slump capitalism of the 1990s is none too appealing. Across the Western world, the old political systems of the Cold War era are breaking down. Parties are disintegrating; traditional state institutions are falling into disrepute; governments cannot project any positive vision; politicians are generally held in contempt. The persistence of the global economic slump has not helped the capitalist class to cope with the loss of its old enemy. It is hard to inspire people about what capitalism has to offer when insecurity and austerity are the order of the day. The result is that nobody believes in anything very much these days. There is nothing compelling people to give their allegiance to anybody. Although abstention from the political process has not yet reached East European proportions, it is growing rapidly in the West. In the context of the disintegrative trends at work in Western societies, the fragmentation of the Russian state strikes fear into the hearts of governments everywhere. That is why all the Western powers backed Yeltsin over Chechnya. All pronouncements from Western capitals have stressed that Chechnya is legally part of the Russian federation and that Yeltsin has the right to restore law and order in the breakaway republic.

'Suppress the rebels!'
America did not mince words when the crisis erupted. Washington bluntly told Moscow to stop messing around and restore order. Bill Clinton's administration said that Russia's handling of the region was its internal business. Washington emphasised that the borders of the Russian federation are inviolate, even when regions like Chechnya containing a majority of non- Russians demand independence. The US press echoed the White House line. 'The three-year insurrection cannot be allowed to stand', declared aNew York Times editorial. 'Although a negotiated settlement would be the best outcome, Mr Yeltsin is justified in using military force to suppress the rebellion.' (14 December 1994) The paper said that Washington should quietly counsel the president in the application of force, and offered some counselling itself: 'His [Yeltsin's] task is to move decisively to depose Mr Dudayev, then end the bloodletting as quickly as he can.' So concerned was Clinton to demonstrate his support for Yeltsin that in the middle of the crisis, when Russian tanks and aircraft were on their way to Grozny, he sent his vice-president, Al Gore, to hold the president's hand in Moscow. It would seem that Gore told Yeltsin to get on with it, because soon after that the bombs began to rain down on Grozny. Britain followed America in givingfull support to Yeltsin. Downing Street insisted that the revolt in Chechnya was an internal Russian problem, and urged the president to restore order at the earliest opportunity. The Times captured the fears of the establishment about the humiliation of the state represented by the events in Chechnya: 'To allow Chechnya to tear up the Russian constitution would also represent a threat to democracy. Russian statehood is vulnerable enough, without conceding a precedent of unilateral declarations of independence....Even the weakening of Moscow's authority in this context would have security implications for the whole European land mass. As Mr Yeltsin steels himself to reimpose order among Tolstoy's "turbulent and predatory Asiatics", his critics should remember that it is the Chechens who are the outlaws.' (21 December 1994) Neither the Times nor the British government gives two hoots about democracy in Russia, which does not exist anyway; all they care about is the maintenance of order and stability. To this end they are prepared to back the use of force to put down the threat to the integrity of the state. Another editorial denounced Chechnya as a 'gangster state' with no legal or moral claim to independence, and said that the use of force 'must be coordinated, overwhelming and decisive' (13 December 1994).

Internal matter
Germany too backed Yeltsin. Even after Grozny had taken a pounding, the German foreign minister, Klaus Kinkel, refused to condemn Moscow. He said that it was impossible to take a firm stand on the events in Chechnya. Kinkel insisted that the bombings and killings in Grozny were 'an internal Russian matter'. He added that nobody could deny Russia the right to prevent parts of the federation 'drifting away'. A French foreign ministry spokesman said that France viewed the territory of Chechnya as an 'integral part of the Russian federation'. Like all the rest, Paris made clear that its sympathies were with Moscow. Only after Moscow had made such a meal of the invasion that it was becoming an embarrassment did a few critical noises issue forth from Western capitals. Yet even then the furthest anybody went in criticising Yeltsin was to suggest that he might not really be in control of the situation. As usual it was a mysterious clique of invisible 'hardliners' who got the flak. It would not be surprising if Western leaders had advised Yeltsin to step up the bombardments and blame it all on shadowy figures in the military. This is because the West would rather that Moscow got the bloody business over with than that the crisis dragged on and further weakened the authority of the state. Yeltsin was given carte blanche to restore order in Russia, not because Western leaders have any personal sympathy for him (they think he is a drunken, boorish oaf), but because they crave order abroad as well as at home. Yeltsin could yet fall if the Chechnya fiasco escalates. But as long as he retains a semblance of control over events, he can bank on the backing of the West as he bombs on in defence of the power of the state.


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