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EUROPE : Chechnya Summons Uneasy Memories in Former East Bloc : Ex-Soviet satellites look warily on the Russian offensive. Their fears create a new urgency for membership in NATO.

January 14, 1995|DEAN E. MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WARSAW — The Russian offensive in the breakaway republic of Chechnya has left the world unsettled. But nowhere has it rattled more nerves than in Eastern and Central Europe.

Client states or subject republics of the former Soviet Union until a few years ago, Russia's western neighbors have watched the bloodshed through the lens of their own troubled past.

Their view is framed by half a century of repression, which led to Soviet troops crushing unrest. That legacy has aroused apprehension over Chechnya, while at the same time counseling restraint in confronting Moscow.

There are differences between Russian fighting in Chechnya and Soviet forays into the former East Bloc. But the similarities are great enough to create a new urgency for membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization among many onetime Soviet satellites.

Even so, it is unlikely the fighting will hasten NATO's expansion. The Atlantic Alliance is not eager to antagonize or isolate Russia, especially amid political and military uncertainty. NATO has been more concerned about maintaining relations with Moscow than soothing its worried neighbors.

Here is the view of Chechnya from the former East Bloc:

BALTIC STATES: Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were forcibly annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940 and did not regain independence until 1991. Since then, the countries have squabbled with Moscow over Russian troop withdrawals and Russian minorities.

Official reaction has been cautious. But public sympathy for Chechnya runs deep. Chechen leader Gen. Dzhokar M. Dudayev, who commanded a Soviet strategic bomber brigade in Estonia, refused to mobilize against independence groups in 1991. "There but for the grace of God go the Baltic states," said Latvian legislator Juris Sinka of the bloodshed in Chechnya.

Leaders say the fighting proves that Russia still holds "imperialistic reflexes." It could sink a proposed agreement that would allow Russian troops to cross Lithuania by road en route to Russia's Baltic Sea enclave of Kaliningrad.

POLAND: Warsaw has had strained relations with Moscow since the collapse of the Warsaw Pact. Eager to join NATO but aware of the shadow Russia casts, it has been difficult for Poland to balance westward leanings with eastward realities.

Following the United States, the government has characterized the fighting as an internal Russian matter. Other Poles have been more critical. The government has called Moscow to task for attacks on civilians.

There is no real fear that Russia will turn its military might on Poland. But the war has shaken confidence in Russian democracy and confirmed suspicions that violence remains a Moscow policy tool.

CZECH REPUBLIC: Reforms in Czechoslovakia were put down in 1968 when Soviet tanks rolled into Prague. Since splitting from Slovakia in 1993, Czechs have had no common border with the former Soviet Union and are on the fast track to Western integration.

The government was the first in Eastern Europe to criticize the Chechnya offensive. President Vaclav Havel has spoken of Russia's "massive violation" of human rights.

The underdog Chechens have shamed some Czechs, who gave up in 1968 without a fight. More importantly, the conflict has bolstered arguments that Russia remains militarily adventurous.

SLOVAKIA: With the same Soviet-era history as the Czechs, democratic Slovakia has had a stronger Moscow tilt than its Czech neighbors. Dependent on Russian oil and other trade ties, the Slovak government issued a mild statement on Chechnya that did not mention human rights.

Slovak opposition has spoken of Russian "imperial tendencies" and has drawn comparisons to 1968. It has called for greater solidarity among countries eager for NATO security guarantees.

HUNGARY: Victim of the bloodiest Soviet military crackdown in Eastern Europe, Hungary later became the Wunderkind of the Soviet Bloc, adopting reforms long before its neighbors. In exchange, it was fiercely loyal to Moscow.

Commentators have drawn parallels between Chechnya and Hungary in 1956, but official reaction has been muted. Budapest remains heavily dependent on Russia for trade, especially energy, and has emphasized the conflict's internal nature.

As chair of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, Hungary has been bolder, condemning "serious violations of human rights" in Chechnya and urging Russia to use the OSCE to mediate the dispute.

UKRAINE: Long a docile Soviet republic, Ukraine gained its independence in 1991. Since then, Kiev, dependent on Russian oil and gas, has emphasized the importance of relations with Moscow.

Reaction to the fighting has been low key, with officials lamenting the loss of life but avoiding irritating Moscow.

With its own separatist problems in Crimea, it is unlikely Kiev will encourage Chechen self-determination or challenge Moscow's defense of its territorial integrity. Even so, right-wing Ukrainians have traveled to Chechnya to support the rebels.

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