War and no peace

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 January, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 January, 1996, 12:00am

BORIS YELTSIN has won the battle of Permovaiskoye - bloodily, sloppily and expensively in both military and political terms. He will win the next battle. If he persists in his take-no-prisoners approach to crushing the Chechen rebellion, the following victory and the one after that will be his, too. But he has not won the war, and may not do so for a long time.

Chechnya is not Afghanistan. A sustained, all-out Russian assault could probably finish the Chechens off. But it would take many more Permovaiskoyes, inside and outside Chechen borders, to do so.

More hostages would die at the hands of both captors and so-called liberators. The cost would be enormous in Russian and Chechen lives. The price of victory could amount to genocide.

The war is unpopular with some sections of Russian opinion: the longer it drags on the more unpopular it will get. It is also universally unpopular in the West, which is beginning to wonder if its support for Mr Yeltsin was such a good idea. The break-up of the old Soviet empire was bound to be messier than the grand stand-off of the Cold War, though that was not universally recognised at the time.

SolutionSolution The rational solution would be to withdraw from Chechnya and do a deal on autonomy within the Russian Federation. But it may be too late for limited concessions: Moscow might have to grant the Chechens their independence.

The Russian President may not see things that way. The hardliners brought into his inner circle in the past week are less likely to object to hounding the Chechen leader, Jokar Dudayev, to death or submission than their predecessors. They - and not the reformists and centrists who were previously his allies - are the constituency Mr Yeltsin is now wooing most assiduously. It is their opinions which most nearly reflect those of his political enemies on the left and right. It is their supporters who may be the key to his survival. This is ominous not only for Mr Yeltsin but for relations with the West. The Communists and Nationalists will not rush to form coalitions with the President. But he cannot ignore them. In this summer's presidential election, Mr Yeltsin may find himself standing in a second round against a resurgent Communist or (worse) a fanatical Nationalist with a mission to reunite the 'near abroad' under Moscow's imperial banner.

To retain power, Mr Yeltsin needs to steal some thunder from both left and right. Economically, that means tempering some of the reforms so dear to the West - though at the risk of further chaos later. Politically, it means taking a harder line both in international relations and in dealing with 'minorities'.

TerroristsTerrorists Mr Yeltsin argues, with some justification, that the Chechens are no better than other international terrorists. They have taken the struggle beyond their borders, and have cynically put innocent lives at risk through indiscriminate and pointless hostage-taking. In the past few days, they have co-opted non-Chechen sympathisers into kidnapping and terror on the high seas. It is also arguable - and is certainly argued by the President's new allies - that giving in to Chechen demands would set off new uprisings throughout the Muslim Caucasus and elsewhere on the fringes of the Federation.

There are counter-arguments. Only three of the remaining non-Russian republics have local populations which outnumber the immigrant Russians. Many nationalists would rather be rid of the troublesome Chechens, keeping Russia for the Russians.

But those are not arguments which seem to count for much with Mr Yeltsin at the moment. The question on his mind is how far he has to reach out to right and left to stay in power. Going soft on Chechnya is no more on his agenda than standing tough on the economy. The President has votes to win and the world will have to learn to live with the damaging effects of electoral politics.