Beware the Two Faces of Butcher of Chechnya; as Tony Blair Meets Vladimir Putin, the Dilemma Facing Russia's Czar-in-Waiting

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), March 12, 2000 | Go to article overview

Beware the Two Faces of Butcher of Chechnya; as Tony Blair Meets Vladimir Putin, the Dilemma Facing Russia's Czar-in-Waiting


TONY BLAIR picked a time of conflicting signals to visit Vladimir Putin in Moscow this week. A new brand of cheap cigarettes has just appeared there.

They are called Prima Nostalgia and have a red and black packet with Stalin's portrait taking up the left side.

In the background is the text of his famous order of 1942 - Ni shagy nazad! (Not one step back!) - which ordered the execution of anyone who retreated without orders.

Such a marketing strategy at this moment is extremely symbolic. Putin has just issued an order reintroducing compulsory weapons training in universities.

Even young women students will once again have to learn how to strip a Kalashnikov. Russians almost everywhere seem to be responding to the smack of hard-line leadership and old-fashioned Soviet rhetoric. The economic humiliations of the last decade are seen by many almost as a military defeat by other means: an underhand trick by the West which must be reversed.

The emotion behind this view should not be ignored. An impoverished veteran of the Great Patriotic War spoke to me bitterly of all the widows reduced to begging. Russia sacrificed a large part of a generation to defeat Nazi Germany yet the West, which suffered so little in comparison, is now exploiting Russia's weakness. I understood and sympathised over the fate of the widows but he was confusing causes and effects.

There is no point mentioning the billions of dollars poured into the drain of official corruption by the IMF and other organisations. And the fact that it was state communism which reduced the largest and potentially richest country in the world to poverty, corruption and a range of terrifying ecological disasters is simply not recognised by many Russians. The reality is too difficult for them to digest.

You cannot blame them. They were never told the truth in the past, and even in supposedly uncensored times, whether during the Kosovo crisis or the present war in Chechnya, they are still not being told the truth.

YET despite all this old-style heavy-handedness, Vladimir Putin probably suffers from fewer conspiracy theories about the West than those below him.

He is a clever politician, particularly clever at this moment, when nobody can be sure of what he is really up to.

Many people are certain that his agreement with the communists in the Duma was just good tactics, securing his Left flank before the forthcoming elections.

Even his praise of the Cheka (forerunner of the KGB) is regarded as part of an overall strategy of winning support through tough, law-and-order, nationalist rhetoric.

His callous attitude towards human suffering in Chechnya and his robust rejection of Western criticism may also have more to do with political manoeuvre than instincts acquired in his KGB past.

There is, in fact, plenty of evidence that Yeltsin's successor is trying to face two ways at once.

He apparently recognises that if you want prosperity, you have to help business, which means unfettering it. This is even more true in Russia, where controls have little to do with protecting employees or consumers but getting a lever on profitability which bureaucrats can exploit. It was a vice well known to Czarist bureaucrats too. …

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