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Chat Page Chat

Anatol Lieven from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Russia Chat to discuss the upcoming Russian elections

March 23, 2000
Web posted at: 5:00 p.m. EDT

image Russian Elections
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace


(CNN) Ė The Russian people go to the polls on Sunday, March 26, to elect a new president. Vladimir Putin, who became acting president when Boris Yeltsin resigned on December 31, 1999, faces 11 other candidates in the election. Wednesday, two polls showed Putin getting more than 50 percent of the vote. Putinís nearest rival, Communist leader Gennady Zyuganov, had the support of 20 to 25 percent of those polled.

This month, Anatol Lieven will begin work as Senior Associate for Foreign and Security Policy in the Russia and Eurasia Centre at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C. He is currently editor of Strategic Comments at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London and an expert on Russia and the countries of the former Soviet Union. Lievenís latest book, "Chechnya: Tombstone of Russian Power," is a study of the decline of the Russian state, seen through the prism of the Russian defeat in Chechnya. provided a typist for Mr. Lieven. The following is an edited transcript of the Russia chat.

Chat Moderator: Thank you for joining us today, Anatol Lieven, and welcome!

Question from Candyce: Mr. Lieven, what will be the biggest challenge for Putin, Chechnya or the economy?

Anatol Lieven: I suppose what I would say about the Russian elections is we shouldn't be too melodramatic about them. I think there is a strong chance that Putin will try to take Russia in a more authoritarian direction but his capacity to change the country is limited. There is certainly no possibility of a restoration of totalitarianism.

Chat Moderator: What does Moscow's approach to Chechnya say about the state of the Russian nation?

Anatol Lieven: It shows that, I think, the Russians are pretty fed up with the way in which Russian state power has crumbled in the 90's as they see it. As various people have tried to take advantage of this, a bitter nationalist mood (has developed) in quite large sections of the population, including the intelligentsia.

That said, the Chechens are a special case -- especially from 1996 to 1999. The Chechens launched many different attacks on Russia and against Russians. This obviously created a strong feeling of hatred for the Chechens in Russia. These feelings don't apply to nearly the same extent to other peoples, either internal minorities or neighbors. I don't think that what is happening in Chechnya prefigures a more aggressive Russian external policy.

Question from FLYER: If Putin wins the elections, would it be only because of his Chechen policy?

Anatol Lieven: No, not "only." Itís also because after all these years of very weak, corrupt and ineffective government under Yeltsin, Russians very much want a stronger and more decisive central government. They also hope that Putin will be able to cut down the power of the great financial magnates, the so-called oligarchs, who for several years have plundered the Russian state.

Question from FLYER: Do you think there is a lot of mafia involved in the elections?

Anatol Lieven: Yes, there is. But not, I think, particularly on one side or the other. At ground level, criminal groups control a lot of what goes on in Russia and their representatives have penetrated most of the political parties, with Zhirinovsky's being the most criminalized.

But what they are after is two things. One is gaining immunity from prosecution as parliamentary deputies. The other is extracting bribes from the government. The mafia as such is much too divided to mount a campaign to control the government as a whole. The only people who can hope to do that are the oligarchs.

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Question from RadioFlyr: Would you qualify Yeltsin's official duration as a political transition of substance or more of a political "hiccup" in Russian political circles? In other words, will his administration be remembered more for its accomplishments or more for its resulting consequences?

Anatol Lieven: I think the Yeltsin period is far more than a hiccup. Russia will never be the same again. The privatization of the greater part of the economy marks a very great and irreversible change. As a result, political power has also shifted fundamentally. Above all, the rule of the Communist one party state has been completely destroyed and no such totalitarian rule can be restored.

However, as has often been said, Yeltsinís role was above all a destructive one. He smashed the old Soviet structures without establishing a firm basis either for democracy or for a stable free market economy. His regime was also obscenely corrupt. As a result, the legacy he has left to his successor is a very mixed one.

Question from neweol: Mr. Lieven, should the U.S. take an active role in these elections?

Anatol Lieven: No! Absolutely not, for two reasons. One, Putin is definitely going to win, no matter what happens. That is obvious. At least since Yeltsin resigned in his favor at the New Year. So there isn't much that the U.S. could do either way.

If the U.S. were to try to curry favor with Putin by strong expressions of support as they did with Boris Yeltsin, this would also indicate support for the campaign in Chechnya, which obviously a U.S. administration cannot do. If, however, the U.S. were to oppose Putin, this would only infuriate the Russian government while having no practical effect whatsoever.

Secondly, I really don't think that the U.S. has any right to play a role in Russia's elections. The choice of the Russian president is up to the Russian people.

Chat Moderator: Putin remains optimistic, publicly, about the suppression of the Chechen rebels. But many Russian military personnel have died there. What do you think the average Russian thinks is going on in Chechnya?

Anatol Lieven: The opinion polls suggest that Russian public opinion remains pretty solidly behind the campaign. Of course, although the Russians have suffered heavy losses, they have also scored very substantial victories. Due to a mixture of censorship and self-censorship, the full extent of Russian losses has not been made clear to the Russian public. The question is how Russian feeling may change if a guerrilla campaign drags on indefinitely and terrorist attacks begin in Russia itself.

Chat Moderator: Do you have any estimate as to Russian casualties in Chechnya since the start of the latest offensive last September?

Anatol Lieven: Official figures say that the number of dead is now around 2000. However, a great many people believe that the actual figures are a good deal higher. I would have thought that the number of dead is unlikely at the most to be above 4000. After all, we know from Vietnam how even very large scale operations over a number of years can result in relatively low casualties when one side relies above all on long-range firepower.

The number of Chechen casualties is difficult to access. Certainly thousands of people must have died, mostly civilians. But the figures may not be quite as great as some analysts have suggested because the number of wounded who have passed through hospitals in neighboring Ingushetia is still in the thousands rather than the tens of thousands. The greatest destruction has been in Grozny. But, fortunately, most of the population was able to flee from there before the full scale Russian assault began.

Question from FLYER: Do you think that Chechens will start their terrorist activities inside Russia, should the war drag on?

Anatol Lieven: I fear that they are bound to do so. That has been the example in every other case of this kind, whether in Ireland or the Basque country or in Palestine. Whenever people can no longer fight their oppressors face to face, they will inevitably turn to terrorism as a weapon.

The links of Chechen commanders to international Muslim extremists will also probably provide them with the necessary expertise.

Question from Candyce: Mr. Lieven, what will be the biggest challenge for Putin, Chechnya or the economy?

Anatol Lieven: In the long term, the biggest challenge is undoubtedly the economy. Because without major and stable economic growth, it will be impossible to stabilize the Russian state, let alone play an important part on the world stage. Indeed, if the economy once again began to decline as it did under Yeltsin, then the very survival of the Russian state might be in danger. But in the shorter term, the Putin prestige and the stability of his government will indeed depend very heavily on success in Chechnya.

Chat Moderator: Do you think Vladimir Putin's popularity would survive another major setback for Russian forces in Chechnya?

Anatol Lieven: It will survive setbacks. They have had several quite severe local setbacks already. Most recently, the destruction of an entire Russian paratroop company. But I don't think it could survive full scale defeat of the kind the Russians suffered in 1996. This is very much Putin's war. It will be impossible for him to avoid responsibility if it goes badly wrong.

Chat Moderator: Do you have any final thoughts you would like to share with us?

Anatol Lieven: I'd say that the hopes of the early 1990's that Russia could become a really successful Western-style, free market democracy have to be abandoned. But, after all, that is true not just of Russia but also of Ukraine and of a great many other countries around the world including even Mexico, for example, which is a neighbor of the United States.

But the failure to achieve this doesn't mean that Russia has to be seen once again as a full-scale enemy. Fortunately or unfortunately, we will have to go on working with Russia whatever the state of its economy and government.

Chat Moderator: Thank you for joining us today!

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