Who's Pulling The Strings At The Kremlin?

The effort to crush the separatist movement in Chechnya is fast becoming a debacle for Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin. When Yeltsin gave the green light for the operation on Dec. 11, he was promised that it would last only 40 hours. But more than three weeks later, hundreds of innocent civilians have been slain while fanatical Chechen fighters have turned back several armored assaults on parts of Grozny, the Chechen capital. The army is badly split over the campaign, which will certainly saddle Russia with debilitating economic burdens. There is even a chance that the surge in antiwar feeling could be checked by a return to authoritarian rule, spelling the end of Russian democracy.

The big question is why Chechnya suddenly became so important. After all, Yeltsin tolerated Chechen leader Dukhovar Dudayev's independence claims for more than three years. One view popular in Moscow blames a hidden power crisis in the Kremlin. October's ruble meltdown has given Yeltsin an excuse to distance himself from Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, who was starting to emerge as a possible political rival. He has turned instead to old associates in the military and farm sectors. Others with new-found clout include his loyal chief bodyguard, Aleksandr Korzhakov. This former KGB official is also trying to extend his influence: Recently he lobbied to keep tight state control over oil exports.

In this milieu of intrigue, army advocates suggested a quick war to help stave off big budget cuts, writes economist Vladimir Mau in the liberal newspaper Sevodnaya. At the same time, other insiders pleaded with Yeltsin to take firm control of oil pipelines in the Caucasus, adds Mau, deputy director of the Institute for Problems of Transitional Economies, a think tank associated with economic reformer Yegor T. Gaidar. Only that way, the insiders argued, could Russia guarantee its share of the oil wealth due from big new fields in Central Asia and Azerbaijan.

Now the ill-planned campaign threatens to blow out an unusually tight proposed budget for 1995 that was designed to stem inflation and stabilize the economy. Failure to stick to this plan, which keeps the deficit to 7.8% of gross national product, could cost Russia up to $15 billion in promised assistance from the International Monetary Fund and other Western agencies. Those budget numbers won't hold if the Chechen campaign continues. Just the cost of rebuilding Chechnya's shattered economy would approach $690 million.

Moreover, the destruction of Grozny and the bombing of orphanages and private houses is certain to become a Republican rallying cry against U.S. aid in the new GOP-dominated Congress. And the sense of renewed political instability the Chechen adventure is conveying will likely scotch plans for badly needed private investments in Russian companies.

RALLYING CRY. The bloody putsch has already cost Yeltsin much domestic support. Even though Chechens are widely blamed for Russia's big organized crime problem, polls show that the public

is disgusted with the bloodletting. Democratic leaders Grigori Yavlinsky and Boris G. Federov have both publicly blasted Yeltsin. Even Gaidar, until now a staunch Yeltsin loyalist, has publicly split with him, leaving the President with the likes of ultranationalist Vladimir V. Zhirinovsky for allies.

The bigger question for Russia is whether Yeltsin's growing isolation threatens the democracy he risked his life to bring about. He is due to stand for reelection in mid-1996. At this point, many analysts doubt that he will--or if there will even be an election.

EDITED BY STANLEY REED By Peter Galuszka, with Geoff Winestock, in Moscow

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