COVER

WHISPERS OF WAR

COULD RUSSIA BE PLUNGED INTO DARKNESS?

MALCOLM GRAY April 5 1993
COVER

WHISPERS OF WAR

COULD RUSSIA BE PLUNGED INTO DARKNESS?

MALCOLM GRAY April 5 1993

WHISPERS OF WAR

COVER

COULD RUSSIA BE PLUNGED INTO DARKNESS?

MALCOLM GRAY

Grim-faced politicians stared out of the front pages, and Moscow newscasts carried little but their exchange of threats last week. At times, the only people who seemed to matter in this troubled country were the now-familiar warring leaders, supported by the cast of a few thousand demonstrators who turned up outside the Kremlin to provide a backdrop to the drama unfolding indoors.

But away from the minutiae of the constitutional struggle for control, Russians began to talk openly for the first time about the dreaded possibility that the dispute between Boris Yeltsin and his parliamentary foes might burst out of the realm of political theatre, plunging the capital and the vast expanse of Russia beyond into violence.

Fuelled by tea and vodka, the prolonged discussions around kitchen tables focused on what had been previously mentioned only in fleeting, nervous whispers: civil war.

As he dispensed Western cigarettes and soft drinks through the narrow window of a kiosk in central Moscow, a barrel-chested

shop attendant glanced occasionally towards the nearby White House, where the Russian legislature sits. From there, the angry shouts from a small knot of demonstrators protesting against Russian President Boris Yeltsin floated through the chill spring air over busy Kutuzovsky Prospekt. “I am for Yeltsin but I hope for his sake that he does not have to

call on the army for support,” said the 19-year-old clerk, who insisted that he be called Medved (bear) because of his muscular build. He kept his real name a secret because he had refused to report for his induction into the Russian army last fall. Stifling a laugh, he added: “Had I not declined the invitation last year, I might now be in uniform, getting ready to defend the motherland, or the president, or God knows what.” Only one out of every five eligible conscripts is now showing up on induction day, a steep drop from the mid-1980s, when 80 per cent of potential recruits answered the call to arms. But draft-dodging is only one of the problems plaguing Russia’s armed forces, the chief inheritors of the manpower and equipment of the Soviet Army. The former Red Army is still engaged in a morale-sapping and often humiliating retreat as military units return to Russia from such former outposts of empire as Germany and the Baltic states. At home, they face a cold welcome, a shortage of accommodation

is the best means of modernizing the country’s defence forces. And to date, he has secured the cautious neutrality of Defence Minister Pavel Grachev.

Still, small, vocal organizations of disaffected servicemen bluntly predict that any further attempt by the president to embroil the army will swiftly lead to Yeltsin’s downfall. Said Col. Stanislav Terekhov, the leader of the ultra-conservative Officers’ Union: “The high command might back him, but the army as a whole would not follow.” Even the young Moscow kiosk clerk expressed nervousness that Yeltsin might play the socalled army card. Said Medved: “That could lead to civil war. And even draft evaders would have to pick up a gun.”

From the blue-painted pump that is the only source of drinking water for Tamara Evanova’s neighborhood, Moscow is a 220km journey to the southwest over bad roads. Evanova, 54, lives in Suzdal, a picturesque town of 12,000 that is one of the oldest settlements in Russia, with a stunning record in stone and wood of its history. Onion domes, bell towers and monastery walls rise above the surrounding plain to create the impression of a place embedded in the distant past. But despite its appearance as an open-air museum, Suzdal is edging into the fierce struggle for power that is convulsing Russia’s capital. And there, as in Moscow, people are divided. Said Evanova: “I am for Yeltsin, but the country is being split apart. People are now worrying openly about civil war.”

Evanova laughed as she spoke, then mocked herself for expressing such alarmist

and a country in economic and political chaos.

Nor have the armed forces themselves escaped that disorder. During the past month, Russian servicemen and civilians have been shocked by revelations of corruption and mismanagement within the military, including evidence that four young sailors in the Russian navy starved to death in February at an inadequately provisioned naval base on the Pacific coast. In the same region, prosecutors have ' charged an air force general with using bombers under his command to shuttle merchandise and entrepreneurs to and from China. Said chief military prosecutor Valentin Panichev: “What is going on Ú in the armed forces is only a g reflection of general instabilis ty in society.”

£ Officers and men now engage in a practice that Russians refer to as “spontaneous privatization”—the open selling of army-issued Kalashnikov automatic rifles and other weapons to eager local buyers. More discreet transactions regularly occur in the now-independent Baltic states as Russian garrison forces shrink to about 150,000 men. In the Latvian capital of Riga, Russian officers attached to the Northwest Group of Forces wearily acknowledge that a Kalashnikov can fetch about $1,900, while hand grenades retail for bargain-basement prices of less than $19.

Growing disorder, disaffection and corruption in the ranks inject another element of uncertainty into the struggle for supremacy between Yeltsin and the legislature. Traditionally,

Russia’s armed forces have tried to stay out of politics, as the members of a failed rightwing coup discovered to their regret in August, 1991, when military officers refused to follow the coup leaders’ orders to | attack the Russian parliament g building. Yeltsin has certainly § cultivated the army’s support by | raising soldiers’ pay and em“ phasizing that economic reform «

sentiments. “Who cares what those fools do in Moscow?” she added. “We have everything we need here to survive on our own.” To regions striving to gain control over local economies, Moscow can seem distant and irrelevant. But even in Suzdal, people are keenly aware that they are living through a period of epic historical change. Alexei Stepanov, a 25-year-old entrepreneur, was busy last week with plans to set up a business selling computers and calculators—at lower prices than currently operating outlets. But he interrupted his search for store sites to offer an analysis of Russia’s troubles. “We are going through another revolution and now we have reached a stage where hard choices have to be made,” said Stepanov. “I am for reform but, like many people, I had assumed that we had managed to achieve a break with our past, almost without bloodshed, when the putsch in Moscow failed in 1991.”

For Stepanov, Evanova and seven other women who gathered around the water pump on a cloudy spring day last week, that meant siding with Yeltsin. The Russian president’s appeal for popular support appeared to be taking root in the fertile plains of the region. To be sure, endorsements were frequently hedged, and tinged with complaints about the daily struggle to survive on incomes ravaged by soaring inflation. “My husband is an invalid and all we can afford is bread and milk,” said Evanova. But, she added: “We can never go back to communism now. Our lives are hard, but if Yeltsin succeeds, then perhaps life will be better for the next generation.”

Even in such quiet backwaters as Suzdal, there is little respite from Moscow’s deepening political crisis. All seven of the women who were chatting around the pump said that they now left television and radio sets playing almost constantly at home to catch news bulletins on the latest developments. Said 33-yearold Natasha Mikhailova: “I wish I didn’t. I usually get angry when I look at the circus atmosphere in Moscow.” And in a town whose history spans such traumatic events as the 13thcentury Mongol invasion, many people foresee more upheaval ahead. A be-medalled war veteran made it clear that he was hoping for the restoration of communism. Compromise, he said, had only a 50-50 chance of working. In the still-peaceful village that is a perfectly preserved record of Russia’s past, his was a gloomy warning that the country may not be able to avoid equally cataclysmic events in the near future.

MALCOLM GRAY in Suzdal