On the eve of the Chechen war five years ago, Yegor Gaidar, the former acting prime minister and leading Russian liberal reformer, made a difficult decision to speak out against the offensive, and began organizing anti-war demonstrations.
"I knew," Gaidar wrote in his memoir, "that it wouldn't end in any two-hour paratroop raid, but in a truly painful, bloody and drawn-out war."
Gaidar was right, and Russian troops limped home defeated in 1996. But today, as the Russian military again is poised on the outskirts of the Chechen capital of Grozny, and as bombs, rockets and artillery are raining down on Chechen towns and villages, Gaidar has come out strongly in favor of the war.
His path--from outspoken opponent of a disastrous Russian engagement with Chechen fighters in 1994-96 to outspoken advocate of the current campaign--speaks volumes about how the consensus in Russia has changed in those five years.
In the weeks before the Dec. 19 parliamentary elections, the entire political elite is rushing to champion the cause of the Russian forces in Chechnya, even liberals such as Gaidar and Anatoly Chubais who once fiercely opposed it.
In an interview today, Gaidar spoke of the military offensive against Chechnya in stark terms, comparing it to the U.S. reaction to Pearl Harbor, and the German attack on Russia at the outset of World War II. He said Russia had no choice but to respond with intense force, although he acknowledged that it is seriously eroding Russia's relationship with the West.
Chubais, too, has been rallying support for the Russian attack on Chechnya. For days, the talk of Moscow has been a recent television faceoff over the war between two liberals, Chubais and Grigory Yavlinsky, leader of the Yabloko bloc. Chubais accused Yavlinsky of treason for seeking a pause in the bombing of Chechnya; Yavlinsky accused Chubais of wrecking the army. Chubais said Yavlinsky's plan would lead to a bloodbath; Yavlinsky accused Chubais of being a constant liar and sending arms to the Chechens.
Critics charge that Chubais and Gaidar are trying desperately to tap into popular sentiment and win a place for their political coalition in the next parliament. Gaidar replied that his views were being voiced "irregardless" of their impact on the campaign.
Gaidar said "for me the turning point" came with the August cross-border incursion of Chechen-based Islamic fighters into Dagestan, a neighboring Russian region. He described the incursions as a full-fledged attack on Russia like that of the Nazis in 1941, and said "it was not only right, but the obligation of the Russian authorities to use intensive force to destroy the radical Islamic forces in Chechnya."
"Public opinion in America and Europe is a little bit naive," Gaidar said of Western criticism of the Russian bombings of Chechnya. "America and Europe were not confronted with the necessity of defending their own territory for a long period of time . . . But if American territory were attacked as Russia was attacked, it's quite a different story, and for me what happened is exactly this--an open attack on Russian territory."
After the Dagestan events, Russia deployed soldiers in a buffer zone around Chechnya, but then tightened the noose, sending troops into the northern half of the region and unleashing a massive fusillade from the air. The blitz has sent more than 220,000 refugees fleeing to neighboring Ingushetia.
"Of course," Gaidar said, "Russian authorities should care" about minimizing civilian casualties. "The problem is, it is impossible to avoid these type of casualties if you are in a war, a war with people who are quite cold and well prepared to use the civilian population as a human shield." He said there also were civilian casualties in the NATO campaign in Kosovo "and it is more or less inevitable that we will have civilian casualties in Chechnya."
Gaidar rejected Western criticism that the Russian troops have been using indiscriminate force with massive bombing and artillery raids. While NATO could use high-precision weapons against bridges and refineries, Gaidar said, "when you are fighting against mobile terrorist groups, this tactic will lead you absolutely nowhere."
Over the weekend, the outgoing managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Michel Camdessus, said loans for Russia may be postponed yet again because of the war. Gaidar acknowledged the war was damaging Russia in the eyes of the West. "This war is very negative for Russia, for Russian attitudes toward the West. It's exactly the kind of development we tried to prevent in earlier years. I am not enthusiastic at all about this war. I think it is extremely bad for Russia. The problem is whether we can avoid it in these circumstances. The answer is no."
Gaidar said Russian attitudes toward the military had changed markedly. "The truth is that the Russian army was never very good in fighting aggressive wars, wars regarded as unjust," he said. But now in Chechnya "the army is fighting a war regarded as defensive and just. They are defending their fellow citizens. And you have quite different attitudes, not only in the political elite [but also] in society."
Gaidar, whose economic reforms in 1992 are often criticized in Russia today, retains the respect of many liberals. His coalition is hoping to cross the threshold of 5 percent of the vote required to win seats in the lower house of parliament, the State Duma. Polls show that younger voters especially are hawkish on Chechnya while also strongly supporting free markets, and they are a constituency targeted by the Gaidar forces.