Russia - Yeltsin's succession and the war in Chechnya

Jan/Feb 2000

Everything went very fast: on 1 October, Russian president Yeltsin and his new prime minister Putin sent their army into Chechnya; on 19 December, they won the general election; and twelve days later Yeltsin handed over power to Putin as interim president.

On the same day - 31 December - the new president signed his first decree. This gives Yeltsin, "the members of his family" and "those living with him", "legal and social guarantees". They will, therefore, retain most of the benefits and privileges attached to the presidential position. Above all - and this is what really matters for the "Family", as Yeltsin's clan is called in Russia - they are legal immunity against "arrest, house and personal searches and questioning" for the rest of their lives. This is a way of confirming that, in Russia, the men in power are just a bunch of thieves, for whom being in power is the best way to steal and to be granted immunity - something most people suspected in Russia.

By the same token, Yeltsin has brought forward the presidential election, which was initially planned for June, to 23 march. Putin "has every chance to win it", says the president of the outgoing Duma, a leading member of the Russian Federation Communist Party (KPRF). Indeed Yeltsin brought forward the election to ensure that his protégé will not have to face a public opinion which is made increasingly hostile by the fact that the Russian is getting stuck deeper and deeper in the bloody quagmire of the Chechen war - as was the case during the last war in Chechnya. Therefore, if Yeltsin manages to get Putin elected, his clan will not be sidelined away from political power and he will not have to risk being brought to account or taken to court by people from a rival ruling clan, as some have considered doing a few months ago.

In the end, in order to protect the political and financial situation of the "Family", it will have taken a war - a war which has already claimed thousands of civilian lives and resulted in a number of small Chechen towns being bombed into the ground and which threatens to eliminate Grozny, the Chechen capital, and its 200,000 inhabitants.

New clothes and old problems

Yeltsin's second presidential term was coming to an end, against a background of scandals, while yet another war was taking place in Chechnya. However, Yeltsin managed to improve his position somewhat in the general election, held on 19 Decmber, 1999.

The "president's party" - Unity - emerged as the main victor in the ballot. Only shortly before, Yeltsin was still so discredited that every opinion poll predicted a heavy defeat for his camp. Unity, is an electoral grouping set up hastily last September by Yeltsin's clan. Yet its score was such that, for the first time, there may be something like a pro-Yeltsin majority in the Duma (the parliament's lower chamber), even though the Russian Federation Communist Party remains the largest party.

After Yeltsin had defeated Gorbachev and broken up the USSR, the West pinned their hopes on him, expecting that he would introduce the "market" and democracy in Russia. They were disappointed. But now, at last, Yeltsin may have managed to achieve, in his own way, something of what his Western mentors expected from him, by attiring the social war waged by the privileged against the rest of society in acceptable political clothes. The organisation of regular elections, which are not limited to one-party candidates as before, is now part of the Russian regime's "democratic" dress.

Overall the media remains an obedient instrument of the bureaucracy, like in the days of the dictatorship. But due to the parallel existence of rival powers, the orders may come from different decision centres. Or to be more accurate, the national media, and particularly the TV, are used by the central power to counte-balance the influence of the apparatuses and networks operated by the regional governors, the republics' chief ministers and the mayors of the large cities. The "freedom of the press", hailed by the advocates of Yeltsin's democratisation, is mainly a reflection of the war waged by rival bureaucratic cliques through the media.

The breakdown of central power into a galaxy of scattered rival powers was reflected again in in this last election: the geographical distribution of the ballot results reflects the spheres of influence of the bureaucracy's strong men and their degree of independence from Moscow. In the poorest regions, Moscow was able to secure the support of the local power machineries by offering some subsidies and convincing the local leaders of the gains they could make out of it. In the richest towns and provinces, on the other hand, the parties which had the backing of local bureaucrats or national cliques opposed to Yeltsin, often succeeded in getting much better scores than Unity.

However, the main feature of this election was, of course, the fact that the Yeltsin regime had sent its army to wage war in Chechnya. The regime wanted this war and used it, first in order to win the election and, second, although these two aspects are linked, in order to settle some of its internal problems.

The conflict-prone relationship between the Kremlin and Grozny, Chechnya's capital, is nothing new. It expresses Moscow's refusal to recognise the declaration of independence made by Grozny nine years ago and already led to the first war between Russia and Chechnya, five years ago. But in addition to these relatively old factors, new ones have emerged, which are connected to the power struggle within the leading spheres of the Russian state. Indeed, this war seems to be an attempt by Yeltsin's clan to avoid being sidelined after the June 2000 presidential election, despite the fact that, in theory at least, Yeltsin cannot stand again in this election.

Russia and Chechnya

Chechnya used to be an autonomous republic, part of the Russian Socialist Federated Soviet Republic (RSFSR), which was itself one of the fifteen republics forming the Soviet Union. Chechnya declared independence - which has never been recognised by Moscow, nor by any other country - in November 1991, when the Soviet Union was breaking up. Chechnya did not participate in the Community of Independent States (CIS), which was set up as a tentative replacement of the USSR by twelve of its former republics. It provides an extreme example of the kind of degeneration and decay which followed the breakup of the USSR, and of the resulting consequences for the populations.

The Chechen authorities declared their independence just a month before the political leaders of the bureaucracy in Russia, Belarus and Ukraine decided to sink the Soviet Union, after many years spent building up their own fiefdoms and strengthening their independence from Moscow. Yeltsin and the top bureaucracy of the RSFSR, who were just as busy taking care of their own interests, chose not to oppose Chechnya's secession, which they could not have prevented anyway. In the short term even, the series of declarations of independence which took place at the time in the RSFSR worked to their advantage, by depriving the central power, then represented by Gorbachev, of its legitimacy and weakening it.

So, what had been the autonomous Republic of Chechnya-Ingushetia within the RSFSR, seceded from the USSR and from Russia. It then split, as the leaders of Ingushetia - the western part, covering one fourth of the republic's territory - wanted to go their own way. Compared to the USSR, which until recently had comprised 300m people, this atomisation into scattered states seemed to have reached its last point. However, there was still more to come.

In Chechnya, in particular, the independent power bore little ressemblance to a state machinery. Even before taking shape, it was already decaying, leaving the country in complete chaos. In Grozny, the president was a Chechen general of the Soviet army, Dudaiev. But his power did go beyond the limits of the city. The rest of Chechnya was dominated by rival clans, each one operating in its own fiefdom. Theft of public property, robberies, kidnapping for ransom, racketeering, trafficking of all kind, etc., were prosperous activities under the rule of these gangs. This looting of the Chechen economy became all the more ferocious as, once everything had been stolen in the state companies, there was not much left to steal.

However, Yeltsin had not given up hope of bringing this small country back into Russia's fold. But as long as he was faced with similar rebellions in many other parts of Russia, some of which were much more critical than Chechnya, he could not afford to do anything. At first there was, therefore, a kind of compromise between Moscow and Grozny: Moscow allowed Dudaiev to talk about independence and take his share of the local loot, provided the Grozny refineries and the Chechen section of a pipeline from the Caspian sea (meaning oil and foreign currency for Russia) remained Russia's property.

But this status quo was unstable. Neither the Moscow leaders, and even less their counterparts in Grozny, had the means to impose it. Both were under the pressure of factions inside their own camps and rival factions outside. Khazbulatov, for instance, the president of the Supreme Soviet of Russia and one of Yeltsin's allies (before becoming one of his opponents) had his own interests and protégés to defend in Chechnya, which were different from those of Dudaiev or Yeltsin. Yeltsin, although allied with Dudaiev, was weakening him to the benefit of rival groups whose men were fighting in a seceding region of neighbouring Georgia, in the name of a brand of Causasian nationalism with Islamic undertones. In doing so the Kremlin hoped to increase its leverage on Dudaiev's regime as well as on the Georgian leaders who were reluctant to join the CIS, which Moscow was trying to use to retain its influence and maintain some cohesion in the former Soviet Union.

The CIS, with its contradictory name, hardly exists. It is paralysed by inter-state rivalries. In the Causasus, these rivalries and the breakdown of the states into competing feudal factions, fuels a state of permanent latent and sometimes open war. But when it comes to Chechnya, which is the prey to looting by armed gangs, one cannot talk any more of the weakening of state power, as in Georgia for instance. Indeed, there is no more state power in Chechnya, or at most a shadow of it. At the end of 1994, as Dudaiev seemed to have lost the support of his own clique, Moscow chose to go on the offensive. For twenty months, Russian troops went on the rampage in Chechnya. Hundreds of thousands of inhabitants were forced into exile by the war and tens of thousands were killed, together with several thousand Russian soldiers.

The Russian generals had presented the war as if it was going to be an easy ride. But it backfired on Yeltsin. The war caused the Chechen population, which had many reasons to turn away from Dudaiev, to unite against Yeltsin. Russian aggression pushed the population into the arms of the local warlords, whose weapons could at least provide a means to take revenge on the Russian bombs. Despite the Russian army's numerical and technical superiority, it never managed to hold its ground. This was not due to the Chechen resistance, which was rapidly disintegrating. Back in Russia, some provincial governors refused to send their region's conscripts to Chechnya. In Chechnya itself, some top-ranking officers resigned in the middle of the war. Many others, were busy enriching themselves at the expense of the army's budget. Some officers sold weapons and food to the opposite side. The number of desertions increased and when the general staff was no longer able to conceal the fact that it was sending soldiers to the slaughterhouse, the mothers of soldiers came to the frontline and refused to leave without their sons.

The army was one of the few institutions which had not suffered too much from the collapse of the Soviet Union and it was now threatening to break up. The corruption of the army cadres and the impact on the army of the conflicts within the top spheres of the state and in the regions, provided a striking reflection of the poor state of Yeltsin's regime. So, just a few weeks before the 1996 presidential election, realising that his chances were low, Yeltsin had to resign himself to signing a peace deal and withdraw his troops. The Kremlin made a commitment to rebuild Chechnya and agreed to organise a referendum on independence in 2001.

From one war to another

In Chechnya, after a period of poverty came a period of deprivation in the midst of ruins. The international aid was diverted by Maskhadov, who had been elected president after Dudaiev's death during the war. The help promised by the Kremlin never materialised: no doubt the Moscow leaders were much too busy lining their own pockets. Berezovsky, a bureaucrat and businessman who is close to Yeltsin, was even able to boast in the press that he had been the only one to help Chechnya: he had given $3m from his own pocket (which he had no difficulty in lining since his income comes from his links with Yeltsin's clan) to a warlord called Bassaiev who happens to be in charge of protecting the oil interests owned by Berezovsky and the Kremlin in that region!

Indeed, Bassaiev and the other Chechen warlords had not disappeared during the war, nor had they stopped holding the population to ransom. In fact they had reinforced their grip on the country: after all, they were heroes of the resistance against Moscow! Some had even imposed the sharia, the Islamic law, as a means to force the population into submission even more effectively. While it is easy for the Kremlin to condemn these warlords - which it sometimes fights and sometimes uses, according to what is most expedient - as "terrorists", one should not forget that it is first and foremost the Chechen population which has been at the receiving end of this "Chechen terrorism". Just as it is the same Chechen population which has been at the receiving end of the "state terrorism" of the Kremlin during two wars which were waged under the pretext of fighting terrorism.

The Kremlin may well claim today that it is fighting "international terrorism" in Chechnya, on the grounds that warlords like Bassaiev get financial backing from Gulf states. But this does not alter the fact that this is an infamous war in which civilians are the first victims and that Yeltsin's regime bears responsibility for the development of this terrorism. Yeltsin, Berezovsky, etc.. contributed to its development by financing when it was convenient for them, but above all it has been their policies which have pushed so many Chechens into the arms of the warlords. There were those who were revolted by the war who were seeking revenge or protection. Others who were faced with a choice between working for nothing to enrich the corrupted authorities of Grozny (Chechen state workers have received no wages over the past three years), or moving to one of Russia's large towns and joining the mafia. Still others who opted for a third solution - that of grabbing the gun that a warlord who was denounced by Moscow as an enemy was offering them.

As to the Chechen president, Maskhadov, his power, like that of his predecessor, did not extend beyond the capital. Being already discredited, this president was not much of a threat for Moscow. But the mere existence of an independent Chechnya was a thorn in Moscow's flesh. And yet, judging by the reports of Western journalists who are rather sympathetic to Chechen nationalism, part of the population was beginning to find the cost of independence and of feeding the warlords and the Grozny bureaucrats unbearable.

However, if Moscow has been bombing Chechnya since 1 October 1999, it is not to help the Chechen population to get rid of its local parasites - it is because the Moscow dignitaries had decided that inflicting death on the Chechen population might give new life to their own power.

Yeltsin's clan and the war

No effort was spared to prepare Russian public opinion for this war. Last summer, the Kremlin used the pretext of incursions - which they may well have organised - of some of Bassaiev's gangs into the Republic of Daghestan, one of Chechnya's neighbours. Twice these gangs were able to occupy small towns, to proclaim a Chechen- Daghestan Islamic republic and to withdraw without the Russian army causing them any real casualties. Some observers found this suspect, but this was not mentioned by the Russian media. Almost immediately after this came a series of murderous bomb attacks against housing blocks in large Russian cities, including Moscow. The press immediately echoed the official line: these attacks had been carried out by "Chechen terrorists" and they had to be punished.

The authorities had no proof whatsoever of this at the time, and they still do not have any today, as Berezovsky himself declared recently to a French newspaper. But Yeltsin's clan had a pretext for another war and Luzhkov, Moscow's mayor, followed suit. Luzhkov, who is officially candidate to Yeltsin's succession, has built his political image on the promise to turn the capital into a haven of prosperity and order. Before the bombings, he had criticised Yeltsin for failing to protect the Moscow population. This resulted in a campaign of overbidding in which Luzhkov went even further than the Kremlin down the road of racism, accusing all Chechens of terrorism and declaring an open war on the 100,000 Chechens living in Moscow. The police was sent out for them. Thousands were rounded up, parked in detention centres, often beaten up, sometimes to death. Almost everyone in the media and among politicians played his part in this anti-Chechen campaign, trying to prove himself more "patriotic" than everyone else.

There were some unexpected incidents. In some housing blocks, the inhabitants had formed watch militias to pre-empt further bombings. In one provincial town one of these militias caught some men carrying explosives. As it turned out, however, once these men were brought to the police station, they were found not to be Chechens, but Russians belonging to the Special Units. During September, when the bombings claimed 300 deaths, these were the only "terrorists" to be arrested. But the authorities were quick to hush up the story as many people were beginning to suspect that the origin of these criminal explosions might be close to the Kremlin.

After two months of this anti-Chechen campaign, Yeltsin's military machine started moving. Given the experience of 1994-96, when public opinion had become increasingly hostile to the war, this time Yeltsin tried to take public opinion on board his military drive. Initially the army high command was careful not to send the infantry to the front line - in the previous war, this had resulted in large numbers of casualties, provoking hostile reactions in Russia. The generals announced that this time they would drown any possible resistance under the fire of the artillery. This was meant to reassure the soldiers' parents. But no mention was made of Yeltsin's decision to repeal a decree which provided that no conscript could be sent to the frontline before the end of his first year in the army.

The army high command boasted of implementing in Chechnya the same tactic used by NATO against Serbia - the so-called "zero casualty" tactic, that is among the Russian army of course, not among the civilian population! The Russian press does not report the carpet- bombing of towns and villages. The war itself does not exist. It is an "anti-terrorist operation". Civilian victims do not exist either, only refugee camps are shown. As to casualties among Russian soldiers, their number is systematically played down.

How much longer will the self- censorship of the media manage to hide the character of this slaughter? Probably as long as the number of coffins going back home remains relatively low. But people will begin to realise what is happening sooner or later. Even if Grozny is taken over, no-one has forgotten that during the last war, the occupation of Chechen towns did not stop the bloodbath. And this is still too fresh in people's memories for them to have real illusions in what is going on in Chechnya and in what the Russian leaders are capable of doing.

In electoral terms, the first few weeks of the war did work to the advantage of the Russian rulers. Prime minister Putin, who is also Yeltsin's heir apparent, played the role of the strong man. This went down well with a section of the electorate - if only because of the way in which his stance contrasted with the weakness and corruption of power over the past years. The first three months of the war - in which the election campaign took place - also allowed the regime to silence the official opposition, to get them to rally behind Yeltsin in the name of patriotism and, as a result, to win the election.

If this shows anything, it is first of all that these parties, even when they call themselves socialist or communist, are enemies of the working class, just as much as those who are in power.

This "militaro-electoral campaign", to use a phrase coined by the weekly "Moskovskie Novosty" (Moscow News), benefited first and foremost Yeltsin's clan. It allowed Yeltsin to get people to forget the allegations of corruption revealed by the media over the past months: the bank accounts in Switzerland and other tax havens, the billions stolen from a population which has often to wait for months before getting a miserly wage. This has also allowed Yeltsin to fend off the attempts of other leading cliques - that of Luzhkov or former prime minister Primakov - to capitalise on the reaction of disgust generated by Yeltsin's corruption among the electorate, win the general election and position themselves for the presidential election. But from a social point of view, the entire ruling caste had a vested interest in ensuring that Yeltsin's corruption should be forgotten - because his discredit would have inevitably affected the bureaucracy as a whole. In that sense, this Chechen war also serves the social interests of the entire bureaucracy.

How long can the issue of Yeltsin's theft or the corruption of the bureaucracy be kept under the carpet? Obviously Putin hopes that it will not come out before he gets Yeltsin's job in the presidential election.

From Chechnya to Serbia

Unlike the imperialist powers who were bombing civilians in Serbia and Kosovo, Yeltsin did not see the point of hiding his war against Chechnya behind humanitarian lies. And in a sense, this is what Clinton, Blair and the other Western leaders criticise him for, when, having allowed him to bomb Chechnya for two months without saying anything, they suddenly make a show of raising their voices. Yeltsin still has a few leaves to take from the imperialist book of hypocrisy, before he can hope to be admitted to the very select club of the guardians of the "world order". Other than that, no-one in the West has any "ethical" problem in recognising the right of the Russian leaders to drown in blood what western politicians call a "domestic issue". In any case it does not cause the West any more of an "ethical" problem than when they themselves arm the Turkish military to crush their "domestic issue" in Kurdistan, when they support bloody dictatorships in the Far East, or when they bomb the civilian Iraqi population, day after day and year after year, without the Western media having much to say about it.

Even the Western threats, after two months of war in Chechnya, to suspend their loans to Russia, were nothing but a cynical farce. If the IMF has suspended its loan to Russia, it is not due to the war: the suspension began a full year before the war, because the IMF simply had no trust in the stability of the Russian regime, its laws and its institutions. It is not the gangsterism of the Russian "elite" which bothers Western leaders, not even their laundering of stolen international funds - they are used to this sort of thing and anyway the product of the loot ends up in the vaults of western banks. No, what worries the West is the inability of the Russian state institutions to protect private property and particularly what little Western investment there is in Russia.

Of course, this does not prevent the World Bank from granting the occasional few million dollar loan to the Kremlin, as it did at the end of December for specific operations. Business remains business.

The nationalist trap

Once Grozny is taken over, negotiations will begin - this is what, according to Western leaders, they were promised by Putin. But even if that is the case, it will not change the situation much, not even probably for the Chechen population, just as the 1996 "peace" failed to do. But what is certain, if and when "peace" does come, is that Chechnya will come out of this war even more devastated than after the previous one. Besides, it is also likely, unfortunately, that the criminal brutality of Yeltsin's regime, far from defeating "terrorism", will have deepened even further the divide between the Chechen and Russian populations and that it will reinforce all those who, whether in Chechnya or in Russia, seek to whip up ethnic hatred.

In the Causasus and the regions of Russia where the populations are of Muslim origin, this war can only reinforce reactionary currents based on religion, all the more so as these are mostly very poor areas where these currents are the only political forces available.

In the rest of Russia, even if this war does not generate a wave of terrorism out of the despair of a minority, persecuted to satisfy the ambitions of the leaders of the bureaucracy, it may offer nationalist ammunition for far-right groupings, or even for the ruling factions. Putin recently stated that "patriotism should be the backbone of our new ideology". In this respect, he won unconditional support from all parties - from the "Liberals" of the populist Zirinovsky to the quasi-fascist fa-right, including the "democrats" and Zuganov's "communists". All these parties see nationalism as a good way to divert the attention of the Russian population, particularly of the Russian working class, from its real interests and its real enemies.

As far as one can judge from a distance, the authorities' racist and jingoistic propaganda has had less impact among the popular classes (which are still largely multi- ethnic, as in the days of the USSR) than among the petty-bourgeoisie which, after having lost all hope to get rich following the collapse of the ruble in 1998, may find in nationalism a cheap way to get some comfort.

As to the working class, it would have everything to lose in allowing itself to be dragged on to the nationalist bandwagon. If this new war can be of any use to the working class, it would be that it could perhaps open their eyes further to the growing risks that the clique in power and the whole ruling caste are prepared to impose on the population in order to protect their privileges and their looting of the economy. And the last period shows that in this race to barbarism, all the parties and cliques of the bureaucracy are capable of overcoming their rivalries against the peoples and the popular classes.

2 January 1999