UPDATE: CHECHEN REBELLION
JANUARY 16, 1996
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: President Yeltsin and the Moscow government sent in the Russian army more than a year ago to suppress the Chechen separatist movement in the Caucuses region of Southern Russia. The fighting has cost at least 20,000 lives. The latest violent turn followed the seizure last week of approximately 2,000 Russian hostages by Chechen guerrillas in the town of Kizlyar in the South Russian territory of Dagestan. The Russian military assault took place in the town of Pervomayskaya, where the rebels had moved about 100 of their hostages . . . For more on Chechnya and its impact on the government of Boris Yeltsin, we turn now to Michael McFaul, a professor of political science at Stanford University, who recently returned from Moscow, he joins us from Stanford; to Leon Aron, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, who is writing a biography of Boris Yeltsin; and to Andrei Karatnycky, president of Freedom House, an organization that monitors human rights and democracy. Thank you all for being with us. Leon Aron, what explains we have a lot to talk about. Let's start with the hostages. What explains the heating up of the Chechen crisis now and the taking of hostages?
LEON ARON, American Enterprise Institute: Well, I think two things. One is the general situation in which neither the government nor the rebels, the separatists, are willing to give up, and the whole war is sliding towards this sad pattern of, of the dirty little wars that, for example, Turkey fights against the Kurds, India fights against the separatists in Kashmir or Punjab, or Sri Lanka fights against the Tamal rebels.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: A sort of festering sore.
MR. ARON: It's a festering sore.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Not a huge event that brings the government down-
MR. ARON: No, that's right. That's correct.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But a festering sore.
MR. ARON: That's right. It's not fatal. It's clearly degrading and corroded, but it's not fatal to even quasi-democratic arrangements in all those three nations, but the immediate cause, I think, was first of all that Yeltsin forced very ill-timed presidential elections in Chechnya, and the Chechens...
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Last month.
MR. ARON: That's right. And the Chechens naturally, I think, with good reason consider the elected president somebody elected under the guns of the Russian troops in the occupied Chechnya as a pocket of Moscow, and there was clearly this is an effort by Dzhokhar Dudayev, who is the leader of the rebel Chechens, to prove that, that he's in charge and he would fight back, and these elections are considered by him illegitimate. The leader of these rebels is his brother-in-law.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Karatnycky, the Russians did negotiate with the rebels and there seemed to be some progress made last year. What happened to all that?
ANDREI KARATNYCKY, Freedom House: Well, I think that that's one of, sort of the great mysteries of the last year is that Boris Yeltsin has initially undertook this adventure urged by hard-liners in a seeming bid to strengthen his hand as a forceful leader, as a leader who is, you know, powerful and able to restore order in Russia. This has backfired on him, completely strengthening the hand of many of his opponents, and yet for the last year, the circles around him have been deadlocked in a battle between moderates and conservatives and have not been able to move forward in some kind of a negotiated solution to the Chechen crisis. The fact is that this - the return of a number of people associated with this failed policy, including President Yeltsin's new chief of staff, I think signals Yeltsin's decision to return to the policy of tough warfare, of the destruction of the Chechen opposition, but I think that that has calamitous consequences for his chances for reelection.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Prof. McFaul out at Stanford, do you agree with that?
MICHAEL McFAUL, Stanford University: Oh, most certainly. He took a hard-line policy when he went into Chechnya. You have to remember there was an interim event in the summer when a similar situation happened. Mr. Chernomyrdin negotiated a peaceful resolution to a hostage crisis, and many people since then have criticized the prime minister for being soft with the rebels. Yeltsin didn't want to make that mistake again. He wanted to distinguish himself from the prime minister in this particular crisis, and that's why he decided to be so forceful. Prof. McFaul, do you think this situation will escalate even further? I mean, we already have hostage taking today in Turkey and the taking of hostages in Grozny, the capital of Chechnya. This is not a short-term war. There is not a final solution in terms of a military victory for the Russians anywhere in the near-term. This is going to go on for a long time, years, not months.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Does it worry you that it spread to Dagestan, I mean, the events these events are taking place in a neighboring republic, they're not taking place in Chechnya, is there some way this could spread throughout the Caucuses region?
PROF. McFAUL: Yes and no. In fact, I think going into Dagestan for the Chechen rebels was a tactical mistake for them. After all, this is the corridor by which they receive guns, they have there's a large Chechen population there, and there's some sympathy for the Chechen cause in Dagestan. By going in there, by bringing the war there, I think they may, in fact, alienate some of their former allies.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Leon Aron, you're writing a biography of Yeltsin. How does this affect his political standing? How do you - what's the tie-in between what's happening there and politics and Yeltsin?
MR. ARON: Well, I think it's very clear, for example, that Yeltsin is running for the presidency.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You think that's definite. The elections are...
MR. ARON: By the signs. And he said he would not announce until mid February. But look at what's happening. He clearly thrust himself at the center of this operation. He did not hide behind Prime Minister Chernomyrdin. He showed on numerous occasions televised clearly arranged media events that he's in charge and that he's tough. And not only his - we could infer from the handling of the situation that Yeltsin is in the running, we could also, I think, infer his strategy. He was - after these elections, the elections in December, he faced the choice. He could either try and if he decides to run for presidency, try to distinguish himself as much as possible from the Communists the way Lech Walesa did in, in Poland, underscoring the differences across the entire spectrum. It looks like he chose a different strategy. It looks like he decided to kind of strengthen his flank, his nationalist flank, in national security and foreign affairs, witness, you know, the change of foreign ministers. By moving closer to a leftist nationalist position and with the resignation of Anatoly Chubais, it seems to me that he might be even moving closer, First Deputy Prime Minister in Charge of Privatization, that Yeltsin might have decided to move closer to the Communist position or to the left, as I should say, on the economic front as well. I think that strategy would backfire. I think it's very miscalculated. If Yeltsin decides to run against the Communists, but at the same time tries to look like a Communist, or, you know, his nationalist opposition, why vote for Yeltsin? You could vote for the original, instead of voting for a copy. So I think that would backfire on him.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I want to pursue this a little bit in a minute, but first, what about his health? I mean, here's a man running, perhaps running for president, who's had two heart attacks at least and who has not been well.
MR. ARON: It is obviously one of the bigger question marks over the entire campaign, not just for Yeltsin but Yeltsin's presence or absence in this campaign would, I think, dramatically change the configuration. I frankly think that a third heart attack would either be fatal or at the very least would take him out of the running.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Karatnycky, do you think that the Chechen, the way that the President is handling the Chechen rebels and the hostage taking is very directly related to the, the political campaign that's about to begin?
MR. KARATNYCKY: Well, it's a part of it, but the most important part is the series of personnel changes he has made in recent days.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Run through those, just briefly, for us.
MR. KARATNYCKY: Well, the main changes have been the naming of the former head of counter-intelligence, of foreign intelligence, Yevgeny Primakov, to be the foreign minister. It's also the naming of Nikolai Yugorov, a hardliner who supported a very tough anti Chechen policy of destroying the opposition, the physical destruction of the pockets of Chechen resistance and of the Chechen opposition, and those are, I think - and Chubais's resignation with an as yet unnamed successor, those are all signs, and the removal of his former chief of staff, Filatov, who was a democrat. Today there are very few faces who were the comrades of Yeltsin in the days where he fought first from '89 to '91 to attain leadership of the Russian Republic, and then in the fight to bring down Gorbachev and to bring him to power. That whole circle, that whole entourage has been crowded out. There are no strong links between the current team and these democrats and democratic reformers. More importantly, I would say that what we are witnessing is the political elite, the power elite in Russia internally pushing to prepare a government transition. I believe that the - many of the power centers understand that public opinion has shifted in the direction irrevocably, and either a nationalist or nationalist Communist will come to power. And many of the ministerial and staff appointments that are being made are people who could work very comfortably under either a President Leved or President Zyuganov.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: This is a very significant development. I mean, what's happened in the past couple of weeks in your view would, should be seen as very significant.
MR. KARATNYCKY: Yes. And also retrospectively, from that perspective, the blunder of launching the war in Chechnya may well be seen as a very important pivotal moment, a pivotal miscalculation in Yeltsin's political career at a time, I think, when he thought it would give him strength as a tough minded, restorer of order and of the strength of the federal system in Russia. Instead, it has fueled a number of opponents. It has fueled nationalists who want to come to a blood vengeance against ethnic minorities. It has fueled the neofascists who want the prosecution of a vigorous war. It has fueled Communist nostalgia and Soviet citizens, citizens of Russia, nostalgia for the old Soviet period. So on all accounts, this event that really - this war that unfolded in December of 1994 may well be the main tactical blunder of Yeltsin's political career.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Prof. McFaul, do you agree with that, a tactical blunder, a major miscalculation?
PROF. McFAUL: Oh, the original intervention without question, I would totally agree that that was a major flaw, and I think we'll look back on the first or the second or the last, depending on what it is, President Yeltsin's tenure and look at this as a big mistake. The more interesting question, I think, though is what happens now. He's running for president, and I think it's important to remember that by Russian law, there are two ballots. In the runoff, the first ballot, the top two voters then go into a runoff on the second ballot. Yeltsin's first and most important priority is obviously to get to the second ballot. If December 1995 those election returns were the first ballot, you would have Mr. Zyuganov against Mr. Zhirinovsky. There wouldn't have been a candidate from the party of power. Yeltsin needs to defeat one of them, and I think it's Mr. Zhirinovsky, to then run against the Communists on the second ballot. That's what he's positioning himself to do, and I think he'll be successful in that.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So you think these changes and the moves which have been described here as moves to the, the, sort of the left, to the Communist left, are to do that?
PROF. McFAUL: Oh, most certainly. Definitely. He's given up on the democrats. It's quite right. There's nobody from the 1990 - 1991 period in this administration anymore, and he gave up on them because he saw the electoral results in December. Mr. Gaidar got 4 percent. Mr. Yavlinsky got 7 percent, roughly, and so he's banking on a different electorate for June of '96. Whether he's right or wrong is another question, but that's definitely his strategy.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And what about public opinion in Russia, what did you find? How, how do people perceive what's happening with the rebels in Chechnya?
PROF. McFAUL: Well...
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: It's changed, hasn't it, somewhat?
PROF. McFAUL: Yes and no. What was very striking during the parliamentary elections which just concluded last month was despite the war going on, despite the fighting that's still going on, during the election it wasn't really an issue in the campaign, and public opinion was divided on that, and nobody with the exception of Mr. Gaidar made it a campaign issue. Even Mr. Yavlinsky, who is against the war, decided not to campaign on it, because he just thought it was politically too risky.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So do you think, Mr. Aron, that this is - it's not like Afghanistan, which became sort of Russia's Vietnam, or is it?
MR. ARON: No. I think it's a different pattern. Again, I think it's a pattern, umm, that we've witnessed in newly in post colonial states or in this case post - Communist states which were put together regardless of the ethnic boundaries or, or regardless of whether people actually wanted to be part of it or not, and I think Russia is settling into a very protracted, dirty war in which neither side would concede.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What does this mean for U.S. policy? What should the State Department and the Clinton administration be doing, given not so much Chechnya but the changes in the Russian government?
MR. KARATNYCKY: Well, I think that the rhetoric of the administration has been to pretend that there has not been this kind of sea change in Russian politics to avert one's gaze from the naming of Primakov from the kinds of changes; occasional condemnations of the brutality and a search for a solution in the war in Chechnya are welcome comments of American concern. On the other hand, there is a bigger issue here, and I believe that Russian foreign policy is moving in a much more aggressive direction. It will challenge the United States. It will seek to establish alliances and relationships with other governments that are harmful to U.S. interests, or it will seek to create the traditional sort of balance of power situations with traditional allies of Russia in the radical Arab world, in the Middle East. It will seek, I believe, some new demarches with China to try to play a kind of a China card against the United States. I think we're going to see a more assertive Russia but we already saw that shift about a year ago really. Andrei Koyzrev, the former foreign minister, was moving in a more assertive direction, but now we have the personnel change with people who deeply believe in carrying out and executing this tougher policy. The United States should be very worried about stabilizing a number of countries that have escaped from Russia's hegemonic control. Ukraine, in particular, is the key country, and I think that with a man like Primakov, whose services have been involved in trying to destabilize other neighboring governments historically and in recent years who had involved himself greatly in the affairs of other states in the Caucuses also suggest that he will be a player in the Russian year abroad seeking, I think, to restore the Soviet Union. I think there's a kind of a growing sentiment within the Russian political elite to restore the grandeur of the former Soviet state.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, thank you very much all of you for being with us.