Even as the civilian and military tolls mount from Russia’s assault on rebellious Chechnya, it appears that the greatest casualty of the conflict may be Russian democracy itself.
With each passing day, the gains made so painfully during Russia’s three-year experiment with democracy seem to be dissipating, and a new authoritarian style is emerging.
President Boris N. Yeltsin - the standard-bearer of Russian reform, the man who scrambled atop a tank to stave off the 1991 Communist coup - has grown increasingly impatient with the give-and-take of a pluralist society, preferring instead to take his counsel within a small circle of shadowy advisers.
Now, as a result of his abrupt, imperial decision to go to war in Chechnya, Yeltsin has been abandoned by nearly all his liberal allies. Since mid-December, the leaders of the three main pro-democracy parties all have renounced their support of his administration, contending that the campaign in Chechnya was undermining Russia’s economic reforms and leading the country back into the grip of tyranny.
“You are not shooting on Grozny, you are shooting on democracy,” a group of liberal deputies declared Monday to the president.
Yeltsin’s democratic credentials suffered a further blow last week when two prominent human rights figures added their voices to the chorus of opposition to the war. Announcing her resignation from Yeltsin’s human rights commission, Yelena M. Bonner, widow of venerated dissident Andrei D. Sakharov, warned that “the Russian-Chechen conflict is a clearly marked milestone in Russia’s return to totalitarianism.”
Sensing concern about Yeltsin’s international reputation as a democrat, his chief of staff, Sergei Filatov, sought to play down the split with the reformers as a simple dispute over policy, a misunderstanding that soon will be patched up. “There is no threat either to democracy or to the reforms,” he insisted in a recent interview.
But Yeltsin’s new autocratic style did not begin when Russian tanks crossed into Chechnya on Dec. 11. It has its roots in an earlier use of force, in October 1993, when he also used tanks, in that case to evict the Sovietera legislature from the Russian White House, the same building where he and his democratic supporters had faced down the Communist coup-plotters two years earlier.
At the time, Russian reformers justified the use of force as a necessary evil, a move essential to nudging Russia along the path of democracy.
After breaking up the old Soviet
legislature, Yeltsin pushed through a new constitution that gave him tremendous power. While he rules almost exclusively by decree, the new parliament has been reduced to an irrelevant hall of rhetoric. So, although a huge majority of its members oppose the war in Chechnya, they have been powerless to affect its course.
“What the ‘democrats’ failed to see,” argued Abraham Brumberg, an American writer who specializes in Russian politics, “was that there is a logical chain between the event of last October and the invasion of Chechnya. The use of force then, the violations of human rights, the special ‘anti-banditry’ decree that makes a mockery of the constitution … all these are part of a pattern.”