by Eric Margolis © Eric Margolis
With Yeltsin currently hospitalized and incapacitated, all the world wonders who is master of Mother Russia? The answer is no one. Like one of those notoriously accident-prone Aeroflot planes - known in the airline trade as 'Aeroplop'- Russia is flying through increasingly rough weather on a broken autopilot.
Russia's Asian neighbors also have stealth rulers. China's red emperor, Deng Xioping, has been invisible for years and may not even be alive. Weird North Korea is run by Kim Jong-il, a shadowy, eccentric figure who is rarely seen. Even then, surgically-altered doubles often stand in for him. This allows Kim to stay tucked away in his palace, watching movies on his home entertainment system.
At least China and North Korea have functioning governments. Russia's squabbling, fragmented regime operates only intermittently. In fact, Russia has become what the Ottoman Empire was called a century ago: 'the Sick Man of Europe.'
Russia bears uncanny similarities to the dying Ottoman Empire: ramshackle government rotted by corruption; demoralized army; entrenched bureaucracy fighting for its privlidges; rebellious provinces; and economic anemia.
Coincidentally, on 04 August 1996, the remains of Enver Pasha, one of this century's most colorful figures, were reburied with pomp in Istanbul, Turkey. Enver, who was of Albanian origin, became leader of the Young Turks, a group of army officers who seized power before WWI from the sick, aged Sultan, and attempted to revitalize the moribund empire.
Enver eventually lost out to his rival, Mustafa Kemal - Ataturk. In the 1920's, the fiery Enver embarked on a crusade to liberate the Turkic peoples of Central Asia from Soviet rule. He died flamboyantly in Tajikistan, in August, 1922, leading a cavalry charge against Soviet machine guns. Soviet secret police long concealed the site of Enver's grave, fearing it would become a shrine for Muslims resisting communist rule.
When I began writing three years ago about the Chechen people's seemingly impossible struggle to regain their independence after 250 years of savage Russian colonial rule, few people had ever heard of the tiny Caucasian nation of 1.2 million fierce mountaineers. Chechnya, then unknown and unlamented, was only worthy of a few, back-page lines. Newspaper editors used to dismiss reports from such remote places as 'Afghan stories' - at least until the once obscure Afghan struggle against Soviet invasion finally defeated the Red Army and led to the collapse of the mighty Soviet Union. In Chechnya, Russian generals openly contradicted their president, declaring the war would go on 'until all the Muslim bandits are killed.' Russia's military continued its scorched earth campaign, using heavy artillery, rockets and bombs to pulverize any Chechen village, town or city deemed 'unfriendly.'
When the Soviet Union broke up, Chechnya declared independence. The world failed to recognized the little nation, though its people probably suffered more from Russian savagery than any other on earth. In 1944, Stalin sent 75% of the entire Chechen people to Siberian concentration camps. For the past 250 years, Russia resorted to genocide to crush attempts by Chechen to regain their independence.
After Chechen fighters routed a KGB invasion force in mid-1994, whose goal was the overthrow of President Dudayev, Moscow sent in the Russian Army in December, 1994. Since then, Russian forces have killed 40,000 Chechens and laid waste the country. Two thousand Chechen 'disappeared' after being arrested by KGB and Interior Ministry units. Human rights organizations accuse Russian forces of mass executions, bloodthirsty reprisals, and widespread torture.
Predictably, perhaps, Clinton keeps supporting Russia's criminal war in Chechnya. He personally rammed a new, USA $10.2 billion loan for Yeltsin through the IMF, half of which will go to pay for the war. Clinton even publically endorsed the war, saying that he backed Russia's need to 'maintain its territorial integrity.'
In March 1996, US Secretary of State Warren Christopher announced in Moscow that US-Russian relations were 'excellent,' - at the very moment Russian forces were exterminating large numbers of Chechen civilians. While Clinton anguished on TV over terror attacks that left 63 Israelis dead, he remained mute over Soviet terrorism in Chechnya that killed 600 times more civilians.
The respected Georgian writer, Melor Sturua, a columnist for the leading Russian newspaper, 'Izvestia,' wrote recently of America's disgraceful silence over Chechnya: 'I remember a time when the arrest of even one Soviet dissident would create a storm of indignation here(in the US). Soviet embassies were picketed, Soviet goods boycotted, Soviet crimes were condemned.' Congress imposed trade sanctions on the USSR to force it to allow Jewish emigration to Israel. Today, after Russia slaughters 42,000 Chechens, Washington gives Moscow USA $10.2 billion.
In Afghanistan, as I experienced firsthand, Soviet forces targeted and hunted journalists. They wanted to commit their crimes in the dark. Russia follows the same policy in Chechnya: reporters are banned or threatened. Of 42 serious attacks against Russian journalists last year, half were believed to have been the work of the Yeltsin government. Many victims were harsh critics of the Chechen war. In Chechnya, Moscow is using the same terror tactics I saw in Afghanistan: promotion by KGB of 'ethnic turmoil' among different tribes and local leaders. Threats and intimidation, followed by selective assassinations. If these fail, mass destruction of civilian areas, poisoning of fields and water, slaughter of livestock. Mass reprisals and acts of terror, then wholesale genocide.
A campaign of state-directed racism warns the Russian public that all Chechen are 'bandits,' and 'Muslim terrorists.' Traditional Russian hatred of Muslims is relentlessly whipped up, aided by the many KGB agents within the clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church. The new KGB director, taking a page from Dr. Goebbels, recently declared, 'The Chechen can only be a murderer, a robber, or at least a thief.'
Now, the new Sick Man of Europe also has its Young Turk, He is retired general, and now national security supremo, Alexander Lebed, who this week was dispatched by the invisible Tsar Boris with orders to do something about the widening disaster Chechnya.
Yeltsin was following a 200-year old Russian tradition. Whenever fierce Chechens rebelled against Russian colonial misrule and sliced Russian occupation armies into shaslik, the Tzar would send down a plenipotentiary general to sort out the mess. The new supremo would fire incompetent Russian commanders, hang some recalcitrants, lay fire and sword on Chechen civilians, then sign a peace deal with Chechen leaders that no one expected to last very long.
In trying to resolve the mess in Chechnya, Lebed must contend with the Russian Army, and the KGB. The KGB began the war against Chechnya, and remains its strongest advocate, supported by the powerful Interior Ministry, which has its own field army. The Russian Army, with a deep, Afghan-induced aversion to guerrilla warfare, was forced to participate by the thuggish defense minister, Gen. Pavel Grachev.
However, the Army kept its best troops out of the war - units like the Tula and Ryazan paratroopers, or Moscow and Smolensk Guards tank divisions, fearing these crack offensive formations - which are tasked against Europe - would become bogged down in the Caucasus. Moscow threw in Interior Ministry troops, KGB death squads, and B category troops, some little better than the Ottoman Army's infamous cannon fodder, the 'bashi-bazouks.'
Though well-armed, the Russians are poorly led and deeply demoralized. Artillery and air power are assigned the task of blasting into dust any Chechens who resisted Moscow's diktat.
So Young Turk Lebed must now try to make peace with the Chechens, while fending off KGB and allied hardliners in Moscow who want to pursue the war 'a outrans.'. A Russian defeat in Chechnya could prove Lebed's Waterloo - a result earnestly desired by his many rivals.
But a settlement, hard as it may be to imagine, could do for Lebed what the victory at Rivoli did for Napoleon: propel him into power in Moscow. One of Lenin's deepest fears, the threat of Bonapartism, hangs over the Kremlin.
As Yeltsin's health deteriorates, would-be successors are positioning themselves for the inevitable power struggle. Yeltsin might still do an Ivan the Terrible, rising from his death bed, to smite all those who dared aspire to his throne, but that's unlikely.
Look for a bitter struggle between Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin, supported by the energy, heavy machinery and military industrial barons; the armed forces, tentatively backing Lebed; the KGB (renamed SVR), now allied to the Foreign Ministry; Chief of Staff Anatoly Chubais and his coterie of powerful bankers and business moguls; assorted mafias; Yeltsin's Kremlin entourage; and communists, baying in the wings.
That's just in Moscow. The rest of Russia's vastness is ruled by a dizzying collection of warlords, chieftains and local nabobs - quite like the old, decentralized Ottoman Empire. Trying to manage this unwieldy geographical and political immensity consumes all the Kremlin's energies. The last, unfortunate Ottoman Sultans had the same problem with their decaying empire.
The last Sultans, at least, took solace in their harems and hookahs. Poor Boris Yeltsin has only Mrs Yeltsin and his dubious doctors.
Europe winks at Russian genocide - as it did at Serbian genocide in Bosnia. Muslim nations again do nothing. Malaysia even goes ahead and shamelessly buys Russian warplanes. Claims by Moscow and the Clinton Administration that Russia faces national break-up if Chechnya is allowed independence are nonsense.
Save for handfuls of other subject Caucasian peoples on Russia's southern edge, like Ingush, Cherkass, and Daghestanis, Russia's other autonomous-minded regions, like Tatarstan or Yakutia, are deep within Slav territory. It's time for the west to tell Russia: Stop your crimes in the Caucasus. Set the Chechens free.
[Eric Margolis is an international columnist and broadcaster. He provides an inside track to world news.]