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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia's Creeping Coup

The fall of the presidential palace in Grozny has made it clear that those forces within the Russian government who began the military operation in Chechnya have no intention of completing it through political negotiations. They are set on achieving a military victory that they feel will "justify," or maybe even cover up, the losses and damages incurred.


However, it is also clear that it is already too late to speak of any military victory. From the military point of view, the only meaning of the fall of Grozny is that the conflict will enter a new stage -- the gradual exhaustion of government resources as the army fights off constant resistance from Chechen partisans. Although Chechnya does not have the resources or geo-strategic position necessary to organize the kind of resistance that the Soviet Union met in Afghanistan, it is plain enough that the struggle will be long and exhausting unless there is some political solution.


The events in Chechnya have compelled analysts to think seriously about the country's future. Seemingly overnight, President Boris Yeltsin has changed his political orientation. The man who was given a mandate by the reformist and democratic forces of Russia has grown bored of playing at democracy. He has decided that, given the country's political situation, it is more expedient to become a radical nationalist. And nothing has stopped him from doing so.


The result of this "political maneuver" has been the complete collapse of the president's already low popularity ratings. He now has absolutely no chance of winning any kind of democratic election to any executive position in Russia. No political leader in his right mind would have taken such a step unless he had first convinced himself that he would never face the voters again.


The fact that Yeltsin has completely broken with democratic reform -- a fact that still has not been acknowledged in the West -- is now a basic constituent of Russian political reality. However, this does not mean that there is no future for democratic development, although the threat to that process is indeed grave.


Most important, it is crucial to preserve the imperfect and very weak democratic institutions that Russia already has. These institutions present a real danger to our current leaders, inasmuch as they threaten to hold them personally accountable for what they have done -- for the murders of thousands of people during peacetime and for the destruction of innumerable buildings and other property. Hundreds of thousands of Russian citizens have become refugees as a result of the policies of their own government. The only way for Russia's current leadership to avoid personal accountability is for them to move even further from the democratic path and toward increased authoritarianism.


Looking at Chechnya, it becomes clear that no conceivable external enemy could have done so much harm to Russia's national interests in so short a time. We must face the conclusion that a creeping coup is taking place in Russia, one that is employing more refined tactics than all previous attempts. Earlier, the first move was always to remove the head of government and key figures of his entourage. Now it has been decided -- for the first stage, at least -- to use the president and some remaining democratic followers to carry out a difficult, dirty task: creating the pre-conditions for introducing a state of emergency throughout the country.


The next blow will be struck against the mass media, television first of all. Imagine for a moment that the state applied still more pressure on Ostankino, initiated a lock-out and hired new personnel at Russian Television and Radio, took away NTV's license and smashed the Most Group (which finances that station). Some trial measures have already been taken. We will find ourselves once again feverishly scanning the airwaves for foreign radio stations and listening for footsteps approaching our doors. The most important thing now is not to lose control of television, as well as to protect radio and the press.


We must also take measures now to ensure that democratic elections will be held either as scheduled or earlier. In addition, parliament must find a means of appealing to the Constitutional Court. Even though all the judges on the court have not yet been approved, the ones that have should be called upon to give their opinions. Of course, this would not have legal weight, but at least society would have a qualified opinion about the legality of the massive use of force within the country without even a declaration of a state of emergency.


Finally, and perhaps most urgently, the country must immediately move from using violent tactics to resolve the Chechen crisis toward a political solution. We must end the premeditated harm to Russia's interests being perpetrated by our own government. After all, this madness is being paid for out of our own pockets. Parliament is obligated to demand a financial accounting and to forbid the use of the people's resources for these purposes. It must also amend existing laws and pass new ones that would make such adventurism by politicians who have lost touch with reality impossible in the future.


We understand that the authority of the Duma is extremely limited and that it does not have the right to consider the budget line-by-line. Moreover, the president may disband the Duma. But now is not the time for deputies to worry about how to hang on to their seats until the end of the year. They must take a chance. After all, the Duma will be disbanded anyway -- forever -- if the plans of those who undertook this Chechnya operation come to fruition.





Alexander Konovalov is director of the military policy center at the Academy of Sciences' Institute of the United States and Canada. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.