Yeltsin's Chechnya silence was not caused by illness


THE announcement that President Yeltsin is to have heart surgery in Moscow finally explains his political inactivity.

The official explanation, that he's had a sore throat, has now been discarded. His failure to support openly and unequivocally the peace plan in Chechnya, however, may have more to do with internal political struggle than with health problems.

The Chechen conflict has been of an intensity not seen in Europe for 50 years. According to Russia's security chief, Gen Alexander Lebed, 80,000 people, mostly civilians, have died.

The general, who must be given credit for the current ceasefire, added a phrase which underlined the value of human life in Chechnya, "give or take 10,000".

The number of wounded is believed to be close to a quarter of a million, according to the general, and those who have left their homes as refugees are likely to be double that.

Twenty months ago, when Russia, inexplicably sent its young, badly trained, unwilling and pathetically, equipped conscripts into Chechnya, lithe Defence Minister, Gen Pavel Grachev, announced it would all be over in two days.

The unwillingness and large scale desertion of the conscripts, and the bravery of their mothers who marched through shot and shell to extract them from the battle zone, caused Gen Grachev and his comrades to launch a war at longer range.

Artillery and aerial bombardment were used indiscriminately to level Grozny, a city of similar population to Belfast. The bombardment, according to experts, was more than 10 times as intense as the most severe Serb shelling of Sarajevo.

Mass graves have been found. The happenings in the "filtration camps", into which Chechen males were herded, have yet to be investigated fully. No one has been accused of war crimes because officially there is no war.

"Operations against bandit organisations" have been regarded as an internal matter.

IF THE bombing of Grozny was 10 times as intense as the shelling of Sarajevo, the latter received 10 times as much column inches in the international press and 10 times as many soundbites on the world's broadcast media.

There appear to have been some logistical reasons for this. The print media, nowadays, allow the broadcast media to set the international news agenda.

It is news because it has appeared on television. When it is too dangerous for TV crews to enter the battle zone, there are no film clips to alert those who make the decisions in the world's newspapers.

When the conflict is in a zone so remote that land line communications with the rest of the world are almost non existent, only the biggest of the news agencies and TV companies can afford the enormous cost of shipping in their armoured jeeps and transmission dishes.

The accountants at head office are inclined to be sparing with such expenditure. The coverage, therefore, is sparser than it should be.

But there appears to be more to it than that. The Chechen war, despite its horrors, is not what tabloid minded journalists describe as a "sexy" story, except when some dramatic hostage taking occurs.

The Bosnian Muslims look "European", and their spokesmen wear business suits; the Chechen Muslims wear tall Astrakhan hats or green bandannas inscribed with the words: "Allahu Akhbar" (God is great). Their spokesmen appear in, battle fatigues and bandoliers of ammunition.

President Yeltsin announced on several occasions - notably when he was running for re election - that the war had ended. Within days of his political goal being achieved the war was on again and western leaders, who had given Mr Yeltsin their wholehearted support, gain to protest.

But it is extremely unlikely that western protests caused Mr Yeltsin to send Gen Lebed to the region as his personal envoy. The reason for the current process is more easily found in the surprising Chechen military success in taking over Grozny once more and humiliating the Russian military in the process.

Finally it was realised that a military solution could not be achieved in the foreseeable future, and that something had to be done.

The official vacillation over Gen Lebed's plan lies, perhaps, in the hope of peace without a settlement, of disengagement for the time being, without loss of face, of dismay at Gen Lebed's popularity at a time, when Mr Yeltsin's health is so poor that heart surgery is prescribed to prevent the grim reaper forcing a new election.

THE conventional wisdom is that several high Kremlin officials want the war to start again. This view has been echoed by Gen Igor Rodionov, who replaced the utterly discredited, Gen Grachev as Defence Minister.

Gen Rodionov did not go so far as to name names. But in an era when the official transparency which arrived on the scene with glasnost a decade ago is rapidly occluding, a reversion to the old techniques of the "Kremlinologists" may give some hints.

The Interior Ministry and its chief, Gen Anatoly Kulikov, are most certainly in the opposite camp, to Gen Lebed and the "party of peace." Mr Yeltsin's chief of staff, Mr Anatoly Chubais, has been making antipathetic noises.

Mr Chubais, a liberal in economic terms, has risen from political death to grasp the levers of power in the Kremlin.

He is extremely unpopular in, many sections of the electorate. The communists hate him because he oversaw the privatisation of stated industry. The democrats hate him because of the nature of his privatisation which saw, in many case's, public assets handed over directly to old apparatchiks turned capitalists.

It his believed that Mr Chubais holds presidential ambitions and therefore may be helped by any perceived failure on Gen Lebed's part. In the meantime, when he breaks his long periods of silence, Mr Yeltsin's views have been unclear.

He has in the past fortnight attacked Gen Lebed's plan, endorsed it, attacked it again and yesterday, according to Mr Chernomyrdi endorsed it once more.