Observer - Russian prime minister puts faith in iron fist

Ian Traynor in Moscow

Wednesday November 10, 1999

Russia and the west cruised towards a collision over Chechnya yesterday when the Kremlin summarily dismissed US criticism of its Caucasus campaign a week before Boris Yeltsin is due to meet Bill Clinton at a crucial summit.

While the Kremlin confirmed that President Yeltsin plans to make a rare foreign foray for the summit in Istanbul of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, his prime minister, Vladimir Putin, rejected the growing chorus of western criticism of his Chechnya policies and ordered a curb on road and air traffic between southern Russia and most of the Middle East, including Turkey, where next week's summit will be held.

Chechnya looks certain to dominate the summit and Chechen officials left yesterday to lobby in Istanbul. Almost all the European leaders are to attend the meeting, with the conspicuous exception of Tony Blair. The foreign secretary, Robin Cook, is to stand in for him.

Responding to the US state department's accusation that the Russian bombardment of civilians in Chechnya is a direct violation of international humanitarian law, Mr Putin insisted yesterday that the Russian tactics were "the only possible way" to combat the separatist guerrillas in Chechnya.

He then tightened the noose on Chechnya and extended the war measures to the international arena by closing six airports in southern Russia to traffic from 10 Middle Eastern countries, from Cyprus to Pakistan.

The government also announced that it was closing Russia's southern borders with Georgia and Azerbaijan to foreigners and prohibiting all road freight heading for Chechnya.

About 100,000 Russian troops engaged in the Caucasus campaign are squeezing Chechnya and its main cities from the north, east, and west, but the Russians' achilles heel is Chechnya's mountainous southern border with Georgia.

Moscow has been pressing President Eduard Shevardnadze of Georgia to allow crack Russian troops in to seal the border and to attack rebel strongholds in the mountains.

But the request was turned down at a secret meeting of Mr Shevardnadze's security and military advisers in Georgia last week.

The Kremlin is infuriated and yesterday's air and road curbs were a form of reprisal. Mr Putin said last week that visas might be introduced for Georgians entering Russia, and he included Georgia and Azerbaijan in yesterday's suspension of air links with southern Russia.

The curbs will make life much harder for the tens of thousands of refugees fleeing Chechnya. While most of them head west to Ingushetia, which is part of the Russian federation, there are also at least 20,000 in Georgia to the south.

Mr Putin is in league with the hardline generals running the Chechnya campaign, who have been delivering almost daily demands to the politicians in Moscow for free rein to prosecute the war their way.

The prime minister reflected the general staff's thinking again yesterday when he said: "If the terrorists are not destroyed now, we will face them a fourth, fifth, and a tenth time... We are dealing with well-organised gangs of international terrorists."

General Vladimir Shamanov, the officer commanding Russia's western front in Chechnya, said: "[Mr Putin] is a symbol behind whom many people march. There is no doubt that I am in the first rank. All Russians are sick of the fact that Russia is humiliated, insulted, asking for hand-outs... We have it bad today but let us be patient and tomorrow will come and it will get better. We will go with Putin and tomorrow will come."

Mr Putin, a former KGB lieutenant general and head of its main successor organisation, the FSB, is staking his entire political fate on his hardline stance not only towards Chechnya but towards law and order more broadly.

He has warned that the Chechen separatists threaten Russia's very existence as a state, and yesterday he turned his attention to organised crime, declaring that the Russian economy would be "completely" in the hands of criminals if his remedies were not applied.

The political strategy, aimed at the elections next month and next year, appears to be to instil fear in the minds of ordinary Russians and then pose as the sole bulwark against the forces of crime, terrorism, and disorder.

Mr Putin repeatedly shrugs off western criticism of his policies and is feeding the growing anti-western sentiment in Russia.

Russian commentators said that a recent meeting in Helsinki between Mr Clinton and Mr Putin enabled both men to look good to their respective constituencies, since Mr Clinton criticised Russian behaviour in Chechnya and Mr Putin defended it.

As his domestric popularity soars, after 85 days in office, there is rampant speculation in the Russian media about his future. Yesterday the Kremlin denied Moscow press reports that Mr Putin was about to be sacked.

In a fierce polemic against Mr Putin's single-issue politics, Rustam Aridzhanov, editor of the Moscow weekly Versiya, wrote: "Putin has to answer for all the consequences of this war. Putin is nothing but war: a hot war in the Caucasus and a cold war in the west. He has no other policies."

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