Socialist Review 237, January 2000
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Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for REDS – Die Roten.
Putin celebrated New Year’s Day by watching Russia’s military pound civilians
Against the background of raging war in Chechnya, Boris Yeltsin resigned after eight years as Russia’s first post-Soviet president. Prime minister Vladimir Putin now faces little opposition in the forthcoming presidential elections. Putin is a KGB bureaucrat who was sponsored by the west’s favourite free market liberals to head its successor, the FSB. A few months ago he rated a mere 2 percent in the polls. A war and the backing of Russia’s bankers and business moguls have changed that.
Western politicians and commentators bit their tongues as they heaped praise on Yeltsin and Putin for their commitment to democracy and the free market. But Yeltsin’s real legacy is war, corruption and economic collapse. The first war in Chechnya, from 1994-96, claimed 80,000 lives: 40 percent of the overwhelmingly civilian casualties were children. At home Yeltsin’s reign began with hyperinflation of over 2,000 percent. It ended with catastrophic economic collapse. Millions of workers go unpaid and despair runs deep: over 30,000 Russians died of alcohol poisoning in 1996 alone.
Putin’s first act as caretaker president was to issue a decree granting immunity from prosecution to the Yeltsin family. Billions of dollars have been raked in from tax avoidance scams, asset stripping and sales of oil and precious metals abroad. The amount amassed by the Yeltsin entourage in offshore accounts and investments can only be guessed at.
Meanwhile Putin and the Russian press brand the Chechens as “bandits”. Putin celebrated New Year’s Day by flying to watch the Russian military pound thousands of Chechen civilians cowering amidst the ruins of Grozny. The Chechen capital was once the world’s second largest oil-refining centre. Across the northern plains villages and towns smoke in looted ruin. Russian irregulars and conscripts seize what few possessions are worth taking. Protesters are shot. In the southern mountains, a base for the Chechen fighters, fuel-air explosives create firestorms that incinerate their victims.
Russia has several war aims: first, to secure a region through which the vital oil pipelines from the Caspian run; second, to crush Chechnya’s struggle for independence and so send a message to neighbouring states and western powers that Russia is a force to be reckoned with; third, to reverse the humiliation of previous defeats in Chechnya and Afghanistan. At home Russia’s rulers hope to cement popular support with a successful war.
Russia has emulated Nato’s aerial bombardment of civilian centres in Serbia and Kosovo. Hostility in Russia to Nato’s Balkan War severely undermined the opposition to Russian militarism that was so important in ending the last Chechen war. Moves by Washington to scrap the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, Nato’s expansion into eastern Europe and attempts to extend its influence into the Caucasus have further reinforced Russia’s own warmongers.
Even the vocabulary of western condemnation has been of a peculiarly meagre quality. Donald Anderson, New Labour chair of the foreign affairs committee, insisted, “The starting point is that the international community recognises that Chechnya is an integral part of Russia ... Our aim must be not to punish or destabilise Russia.”
What now happens within Russia is critical. Putin’s own popularity has risen to 43 percent, and support for the war is running at 66 percent in the polls. But there is an underlying fragility to that support. It rests partly upon the impact of the bombs planted in working class apartment blocks in Moscow and elsewhere, killing almost 300, and partly upon the information blackout by the press. The war is being financed by a rise in world oil prices and IMF loans. The losses amongst conscripts have been concealed from ordinary Russians.
Nonetheless, only 34 percent of Russians are confident that the government can win a long campaign. One recent poll registers that 45 percent are now in favour of peace negotiations. Two thirds are either worried about or ashamed of the military campaign.
The army will take Grozny, destroying it block by block and incurring thousands of civilian casualties. Yet a long military occupation will not be easy. If Russia finds itself entrenched in a long campaign in Chechnya, then growing disenchantment with the war and deep bitterness at home will once more spell trouble for the warmongers.
Last updated on 22.12.2001