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Anti-war Yavlinsky is Russia's real patriot

The Russian Journal

By Michael Heath

January 17, 2000

Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky stood against public opinion on Chechnya. [photo: AP]

To call for a halt to a hugely popular war in the midst of an election campaign, as liberal Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky did late last year, would normally amount to political suicide.

And so it very nearly proved to be.

Yabloko only just breached the 5 percent threshold requirement for the State Duma (lower house of parliament) in December's elections, and the poor performance was sheeted directly back to Yavlinsky's stance on Chechnya.

To most observers, it was yet another example of Yavlinsky's political ineptness in the high-pressure environment of an electoral campaign.

Yet now, as Chechnya descends into a bloodbath, it looks like an act of great foresight. The Yabloko leader is the only Russian politician who can, with both credibility and a clear conscience, run for president as an anti-war candidate, as a leader who stood against the tide of public opinion in an effort to protect the lives of young Russian men.

Of course, none of the war's cheer squad among the Yeltsin hacks, or Union of Right-Wing Forces (SPS) as they call themselves Sergei Kiriyenko, Boris Nemtsov and so forth will be running for the presidency. The rank opportunism of the "liberal reformers'" position on Chechnya during the Duma campaign paid dividends allowing them to race past Yabloko in the parliamentary vote. In the finest Bolshevik tradition of "the end justifies the means," the young men dying today in Grozny served their purpose for SPS in December.

Nemtsov recently cited SPS' patriotic stance as one of the key reasons for the bloc's success.

In contrast, Yavlinsky, for all his other faults, took an honorable stance on Chechnya. In doing so, he sacrificed short-term electoral advantage for the long-term credibility of his political movement and, in a sense, for the maintenance of pluralism in Russia.

Pluralism, because there have to be opposition voices in a democracy, and if Russia is ever going to have a functioning civil society these voices must be raised and the population given options at elections.

That was the scariest part of the recent Duma campaign.

Almost no other voices of dissent from the Kremlin line were heard (Yavlinsky, it must be said, was somewhat halting in his opposition to the war, but it was a dissenting voice nonetheless). And positions like those of the Yabloko leader will, in the end, help Russia really move from being a country where the majority of the population is treated like subjects to a situation where they are treated like citizens.

For that reason, Yavlinsky has proved a much greater Russian patriot than the pro-war chest-thumpers like Anatoly Chubais and Kiriyenko.

After all, Yavlinsky's call for a halt to the all-out military campaign was hardly that of a "peacenik." He supported fighting off Shamil Basayev in Dagestan; he supported taking the fight to Chechnya in order to establish a security zone up to the Terek River inside the republic (to protect neighboring regions). He then called for special operations against terrorists inside Chechnya, rather than a full-scale military assault, in order to minimize civilian casualties.

For that he was branded "a traitor" by Chubais, who proceeded to attack Yavlinsky for his stance on Chechnya at every opportunity, riding on the wave of pro-war hysteria through the course of the Duma campaign.

But now, the position that hurt Yavlinsky so much in December could provide the Yabloko leader with an excellent opportunity in the forthcoming presidential campaign.

As public opinion begins to turn against the mincing machine in Chechnya, Yavlinsky is free to use his position on the war as a fundamental pillar of his campaign for the presidency. Young men dying is a terrible thing to have to use for political purposes however, it was not the Yabloko leader who unleashed the war as an electoral strategy but the pro-Kremlin forces.

Yavlinsky must now harness his principled stand on Chechnya as a political weapon to fight his opponents. Doing so will not mean kowtowing to hypocritical Western leaders it will mean a platform of standing up for the Russian people.

He will not win the presidency. He will not even make it into the second round of the election (if one is required). But at least it will prevent the presidential campaign from becoming a procession in which the acting president will not have to answer any tough questions on his conduct in government.

In taking such a course, Yavlinsky would be doing a further service to his country.