A hostage crisis in southern Russia that initially looked like a propaganda boon for President Boris Yeltsin is now turning into one more potential political disaster.
Senior Russian officials could barely conceal their glee when Chechen fighters took hundreds of Russian civilians hostage on Wednesday. At last, the world would sympathize with their efforts to crush Chechnya’s rebellion, they suggested - and, what was better, on the eve of Yeltsin’s meeting in Canada with President Clinton and other leaders.
But the events of subsequent days, culminating in Saturday’s failed efforts to liberate the hostages, have turned the crisis in Budennovsk into what could be a crippling liability for the already unpopular Russian president.
Scenes of Russian troops shooting at the Budennovsk hospital as civilian hostages inside screamed and waved white flags have reinforced Yeltsin’s image as a man too quick to solve political conflict through force. The pictures on Russian television of Yeltsin glad-handing well-wishers in Canada and attending a circus performance there as the troops were preparing to act only added to his problems.
Politicians and ordinary voters alike suggested that only corruption and incompetence among police could have allowed Chechen fighters to penetrate so far into Russia.
The Chechens’ leader, Shamil Basayev, played on that impression when he said that his band of fighters had bribed police at checkpoints on the way from Chechnya. He told reporters inside the hospital Friday that his group had planned to drive to Moscow - an unlikely boast - but that the bribe demands had been too high.
“The damned (traffic police) were so greedy,” Basayev said. “We just ran out of money.”
Domestic critics attacked Yeltsin on Saturday, with the Democratic Choice Party, led by Yeltsin’s former prime minister and supporter, Yegor Gaidar, saying it will vote to bring down Yeltsin’s government if he does not replace the Cabinet ministers responsible for the tragedy in Budennovsk. Nationalist leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky and liberal faction leader Grigory Yavlinsky both said their parties also will vote against the government.
A vote of no-confidence would not dislodge Yeltsin, but it could bring down his prime minister and also possibly lead to new parliamentary elections.
Judging by the mood among many voters, such elections might not bring positive results for Yeltsin. The evening news on Russia’s most independent network, NTV, showed women in Budennovsk weeping and pleading with Russian troops not to resume their shooting, which they said was only killing innocent hostages.
“The president should be with us now,” one woman said. “I didn’t believe in Zhirinovsky, I thought he would bring us another gulag, but now I plan to vote for him.”