Leadership in chaos

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 August, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 August, 1996, 12:00am

Russia's leadership is at war with itself. Security Council Chief Alexander Lebed is struggling to end the Chechen conflict, that has already cost Russia so much in terms of casualties and loss of international credibility. But hard-line generals seem determined to continue the war, even ordering a fresh offensive in an effort to ruin the new cease-fire Mr Lebed has so painstakingly arranged.

Equivocating between them is the increasingly infirm President Boris Yeltsin. Having appointed Mr Lebed, with a mandate to end the conflict, he has now undermined his position by publicly criticising the security chief's negotiating skills. Adding to the confusion is Mr Lebed's power struggle with Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. His Security Council beginning to act like a shadow government, even criticising next year's budget and demanding drastic revisions.

It may suit Mr Yeltsin's divide-and-rule strategy to have his lieutenants fight among each other in this way. But the message it sends to the world is of a leadership in chaos. The influential Moscow Times has warned of an 'intoxication of power' and compared this manoeuvring behind the Kremlin's walls to that which used to take place in the Soviet era. Worse still they put at risk the best chance of bringing peace to Chechnya, since the war began 20 months ago. In the ruined capital of Grozny, General Lebed is a hero among rebels and Russian soldiers alike. It is only the generals who want the conflict to continue. But a long-term political solution remains elusive: since the Chechens will accept nothing less than complete independence, something which would require amending the Russian constitution.

Already the concessions necessary to obtain a cease-fire have brought accusations of capitulation. Perhaps Mr Lebed's greatest problem is that the only way to negotiate a truce was by ignoring the stream of contradictory orders issued by the Kremlin.

This only confirms what the world already suspects: that President Yeltsin is no longer in control of his own government. But, by publicly demonstrating this, he has made the president lose face and so reduced the chance he will side with the peace faction when it comes to negotiating a permanent end to the Chechen conflict.