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Turkey's Ambitions Raise Stakes for Russians in Chechnya

August 18, 1996|Steven Merritt Miner | Steven Merritt Miner, a professor of Russian history at Ohio University, is a contributor to "The Diplomats" (Princeton University). He is working on a book, "Selling Stalin," about Soviet propaganda

ATHENS, OHIO — The Caucasus is once again living up to its 19th-century reputation as the graveyard of the Russian army. As was the case then, today's Russian soldiers are proving surprisingly unable to subdue a small but determined people, the Chechens.

Last week, Chechen rebels boldly attempted to regain control of their capital city, Grozny. So far, Russian forces have not dislodged them, and the death toll from the fighting continues to mount, now at about 40,000. The city's name, which translates from the Russian as menacing," "threatening" or "terrible," has been precisely that for the Russians. The Chechens' military successes have given a fillip to their cause, threatening to unhinge the current Russian government, already shaky, given the poor health of President Boris N. Yeltsin. As the fighting drags on, the international ramifications are widening.

Yeltsin has given sweeping new authority to Alexander I. Lebed, his new head of security, to end the fighting. Lebed first made his reputation as a general and virtual warlord in Moldova, the former Soviet republic, wedged between Ukraine and Romania, that declared its independence from Russia in the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse. During his years in Moldova, Lebed behaved highandedly, often ignoring or openly criticizing orders from Yeltsin in Moscow. But he restored civil peace among ethnic Russians, Ukrainians and Romanians, among whom sporadic fighting had erupted.

During his presidential campaign, Lebed bitterly criticized the drift, corruption and indirection eating away at the power of the post-Soviet Russian army, singling out for special contempt Pavel S. Grachev, Yeltsin's former defense minis- ter. He also contended that Moscow should withdraw from Grozny and grant independence to the Chechens.

Now Lebed has been given plenipotentiary powers to deal with the Chechen imbroglio. At first glance, this might seem a vote of confidence, but Lebed himself has raised the possibility that he is being set up; with Yeltsin ill, the decision to hand the intractable Chechen mess over to Lebed may have been made by one of his rivals, in hopes, as he has said, that he will break his neck." His fears may have been confirmed when, after he traveled early last week to Chechnya and negotiated a cease-fire, he was promptly repudiated by the local Russian generals and by Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin, who said Chechen independence was out of the question.

It is no easy thing to cut Russian losses and withdraw from Chechnya. For one thing, granting independence to the rebels would only hearten the many remaining non-Russian nationalities within Russia itself, such as the Tatars and Bashkirs, who might like to follow the Chechens' path at the first sign of Russian weakness.

Even more important, the Chechens have the misfortune to run afoul of Russian oil politics. Not only do the Chechens possess their own reserves, but their capital lies on the north slope of the Caucasus mountain range, athwart the natural route from the vast oil deposits of the landlocked Caspian basin to the ports of the Black Sea. The weak Russian economy is relying on oil revenue for a restorative, and, as it happens, Chernomyrdin rose to national power as the head of Russia's vast petroleum monopoly.

Russians are not alone in coveting these rich oil deposits. Most of the fields lie in areas inhabited by Turkic Muslims, formerly subjects of the Soviet Union. Russians in the government, and even more so in the military, are accustomed to regarding these regions as lying within their own strategic and economic back yard. The local people, who include the Turkmen, Uzbeks, Kazakhs and Kirghiz, naturally have other ideas, hoping to keep the revenues for themselves.

They now have important support from abroad. Turkey has long desired to form a coalition of Central Asian peoples, with whom they are linked by linguistic and religious ties. The idea of linking these Central Asian Turkic peoples, known as Pan-Turanianism, has been a periodic dream of Turkish leaders. The Soviet Unions's disintegration has given new life and plausibility to the idea. During the past few years, Turkey has hosted several large Pan-Turanian conferences; it has also fostered cultural and political ties with Central Asian peoples. It is even widely rumored that Ankara has funneled weapons to the Muslim Chechens.

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