Chechen bloodbath goes on

Pictures of war in Chechnya expose Yeltsin's democratic credentials

SEVEN WEEKS after Moscow sent troops into Chechnya to end its bid for independence, the fighting seemed no nearer ending. In a TV interview on January 30 a Russian army lieutenant said: “If [the Chechens] go to the mountains, we will be fighting for a long time. As for Grozny, I don’t know - perhaps two weeks, perhaps a month.”

The Russian forces bombarded Grozny again on January 30, in spite of the presence of officials from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, who were in Chechnya on a fact-finding tour. A new opinion poll has found that 72% of Russians do not trust president Boris Yeltsin now, up from 66% earlier in January. Harrowing television images of bodies mangled by Russian shelling and aerial bombing have fuelled public opposition to the war. There has also been increasing opposition in some of the republics inside the Russian Federation, such as Tatarstan.

A symptom of the Russian problem is the difficulty of recruiting police locally for Chechnya. Detachments from the armed groups of Chechens who opposed president Jokhar Dudayev before the Russian invasion are being formed into police units. However the Russian interior ministry general Aleksandr Kulikov said that muslims were not being recruited into “special forces” units for “ethical reasons”. Since most Chechens come from a muslim background, it is clear that the Russian authorities cannot rely on Chechens to patrol Grozny.

The Russian pro-market politician and ex-prime minister Yegor Gaidar has commented that “democratic” forces in Russia have been weakened with the military and the secret service strengthening their hold - including over Yeltsin himself.

General Aleksandr Lebed, one of the country’s most respected military figures, commented that “in the past only the communists hated Yeltsin, but now the democrats do as well. Not even the army is still on his side.” Yeltsin’s hold on power now appears very loose, but the problem for Russia and the West - who once hailed him the hero of democracy - is who will replace him.

Steve Kay