1994. The Ugly Truth.

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Yeltsin had a short time to bathe in glory after his tumultuous victory in 1993. In 1994 all hell broke out in the shape of war with the breakaway Russian republic of Chechnya.

The setting for the first war in Chechnya was a country struggling to come to terms with itself. Many members of Soviet nomenklatura made a transition to positions of power in the new privatised industries and in the government of Russia. The general public finally realised that capitalism brings stratification of wealth, and the majority, the poorer members of society saw real wages fall in terms of purchasing power, even as they watched a small elite which included some government officials becoming fabulously rich. Left wing leaders weren’t so active now as the chance to make real money had come to them too. The only organised opposition came from the directors of collective farms who obstructed the government’s desire to break up the Kolhozes into small, privately-owned farms. Yet this was not because of any socialist altruism but because the government could not supply credits to purchase badly needed agricultural equipment.

Russians were grieved by the fact that Racketeers had taken over some of the basic functions of the state so soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Gradually these functions became to be concentrated in the hands of the government. The government and the criminal underworld, to an extent we shall never know, merged in 1994.

Over half of Russia’s state enterprises were by now privatised, and vast numbers of flat owners, under the privatisation programme, were being given the deeds to the flats they previously leased from the government. Loyal Prime Minister Chernomyrdin maintained state subsidies on fuel, lighting, telephones and transport. Yeltsin strived for greater market reforms, but came up against a new form of opposition: vested interests in the form of groups of non-communist parliamentarians who formed lobbies and blocked initiatives.

Using such obstacles as a pretext, Yeltsin started to impose his will without consulting representative bodies which he himself had been instrumental in setting up: the State Duma and the Federation Council. The Great Leader resorted to the bottle more and more frequently in public. To the slight amusement of many Russians, in September in Berlin he snatched a conductor’s baton and drunkenly led an orchestra through a rendition of ‘Kalinka.’ His drinking led to chronic heart problems, and later in the year he was ‘too ill’ to meet the Irish prime minister at Dublin airport.

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Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Moscow had moved fast to restore its influence over the outer edges of the previous Soviet empire in newly independent Moldova (Transnistria war in 1992), Georgia (the unresolved South Ossetia War 1991–1992 and the Georgian Civil War 1991-1993) and Azerbaijan (Nagorno Karabakh 1992-1994). Little was actually achieved in these territories by Russia apart from recapturing many of the armaments that newly independent forces had acquired or expropriated on the cheap from the Soviet military.

Chechnya, whose leader Dzhokar Dudaev, an ex-Soviet air force general, had declared independence in 1991, was different. Dudaev allegedly resided over the criminality of the Chechen economy provided a haven for protection racketeers operating in Russia’s cities. He allowed the operation of Sharia law, and frequently referred to the truism that Chechnya had remained within Russia only because the tsars and commissars had more guns. Some said that the interests of the Russian state and the Russian mafia became almost the same thing, the challenge posed by Chechnya – the only part of the Russian Federation where Moscow’s writ meant precisely nothing, became more acute. Grozny airport was the only place where anything, guns, money, drugs, plutonium and people could be exported. The location of reasonably sized oil fields and an important refinery in Grozny ensured that Dudayev had enough cash to bribe functionaries all over Russia, and also ensured that he could secure enough ex-Soviet weapons for a military struggle.

Attempts had been made to replace Dudaev in June, when a so-called ‘Congress of Chechen People’s Deputies’ was established at Moscow’s behest and announced that it was transferring ‘absolute power’ to a new body known as the Interim Council. This council failed to overthrow Dudayev in a carefully staged ‘internal conflict’ in September. Much to the embarrassment of Russia, Russian soldiers were among the ‘opposition’ forces taken prisoner by Dudayev, and they were duly paraded before the Russian media and described how the FSB (previous KGB) had recruited them. The FSB also saw a war as an opportunity to re-establish their importance as an anti-terrorist organisation and achieve increased funding.

A week before the war started, an extraordinary event took place which showed the true nature of the new civil accord á la New Russia. The main offices of the Most Group, a banking, media and property empire run by the flamboyant former theatre director Vladimir Gusinsky, was surrounded by security forces from the presidential security service. When Gusinsky’s security guards were beaten up, he exited to England. Gusinsky had established a working relationship with the Moscow mayor, Yury Luzhkov whereby the mayor would provide legal backing for Gusinsky’s sometimes dubious real estate projects, while Gusinsky part-financed the mayor’s budget. The real problem was that Gusinsky had shown how Moscow had bungled its Chechnya operation on NTV, which Gusinski owned, and in his newspaper Sevodnya. This was the start of the Kremlin’s long attack on the electronic media.

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In December, the Minister of Defence lost no time in explaining to Yeltsin that the Russian army could easily crush the Chechnya rebels. His motivation was not clear, although it might have had something to do with wishing to take the spotlight off accusations of his mismanagement of military finances. The next day, tanks trundled into Grozny and the Chechnya nightmare began. Grozny was bombed to rubble, the rest of the world looked on and begun to wonder what kind of a country they had helped to create. After Grozny’s fall, Dudaev and his commanders organised resistance in the mountains.

Meanwhile, Moscow TV stations reported on the Russian army’s incompetence, and alleged atrocities. Several units, many of them scrawny, terrified conscripts were reported to have been fighting each other until they realised they were on the same side. Thousands of civilians were killed by waves of apparently indiscriminate bombing. Yeltsin, mysteriously taken out of action by a ‘nose operation’ on the day the conflict began, officially issued several orders for the bombing to stop, but it went on, and on, until Grozny was little more than putrid wasteland.