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Events in Chechnya in the next few months, perhaps weeks could decide the fate not only of President Yeltsin's trusted National Security adviser, (General) Alexander Lebed but Boris Yeltsin's future too.
At first they called it Russia's "Falklands".
But soon the pundits in the western press and Mr. Yeltsin's own aides realized that this was no "police action". And the word was out that this could be Russia's "Vietnam". But that analogy was far-fetched too.
Yes, Vietnam did divide America, demoralise the intelligentsia and drain the Treasury but the United States was no Soviet Union with an 'empire' on its own borders and discontented, often suppressed, nationalities within.
Besides its economy never really worked - not efficiently enough to bear the burden of a mighty war machine that matched its rival, the US-led NATO.
In Marxist-Leninist jargon, it was a gigantic contradiction.... a one-dimensional superpower styled the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
Mikhail Gorbachev presided over the liquidation of the Soviet Empire. (My friends in Moscow were smart, and kind enough to take me to the Central Asian Republics and then the Baltic States on my last two visits to the Soviet Union.
The fate of the Baltic States had been decided at least partly by a different history, the notorious Hitler-Stalin pact.)
The plainest lesson in all this is that nationalism could be a more tenacious force than communism, and perhaps any other "ism".
And so to Chechnya, the first serious test for General Alexander Lebed, a "hero" of Afghanistan, partly America's sweet revenge for the humiliating defeat in Vietnam. The Red Army had to pull out, just like the US from Saigon.
On Tuesday Reuter reported that prosecutors would question Konstantin Pulikovsky, deputy commander of troops in Chechnya. He would be asked how rebels took Grozny, the capital on Aug. 6. Fair enough.
But the rest strikes one as a re-play of some familiar scene from the great Vietnam drama.
The Prosecutor-General would like to know how 400 Russian soldiers were killed in a guerrilla strike, and why Russian troops could not dislodge the insurgents. (General) Alexander Lebed has made matters more complicated by declaring that the army knew of the imminent insurgent attack.
Why didn't the top commanders intervene? They may have been able to stop the blood bath.
But the acrimonious debate reaches higher levels, the Presidential palace finally. While Lebed pins the rap on Anatoly Kulikov, the Interior Minister, Kulikov's answer widens the debate.
He needed more troops to defend Grozny but none arrived to prevent the rebel onslaught or to blunt the attack. So the buck stops with the man on the spot, Pulikovsky, the acting commander.
Yes, it all sounds like a re-play of some scene from Vietnam, except that the Russian press, though far freer than ever before, is not the American media, powerful enough to call the shots, wherever it operates, except China.
It is the last scene however which captures the spirit of the drama in Moscow, the capital, the Presidential palace most of all.
President Boris Yeltsin, hardly fit enough to cope with these mounting problems, leaves the observer with the impression that nobody is in command.
And that raises many troubling questions, some quite frightening, particularly to its neighbours.
When Dzhokhar Dudayev, the charismatic Chechen nationalist leader raised the secessionist banner, he was dismissed as a "bandit".
Moscow's counter-insurgency experts found an answer in what they described in the conventional idiom of such experts as a "police operations" - a 'Falklands' in urban centers and the hilly countryside.
For sixteen months, the strategists, including General Vyacheslav Tikhomirov had been insisting that once his operation was over, the difficult part would be to "disarm unlawful gangs". Neither politician nor commander took the "war" seriously. Candidate Yeltsin should have known better. One of the issues that the Communist party candidate was persuaded by his party advisers to raise was "wage arrears". Workers had not been paid for months.
When President Yeltsin turned angrily on his Finance Minister, Vladimir Panskov, he was given a piece of paper on which was written RBS 10,000 bn... ten thousand billion roubles... all on the Chechen. Alexander Iskandrian, co-Director of the Center for North Caucusian Studies in Moscow, explained it in different terms. He told Chrystia Freeland, a British correspondent: "It seems to me that the top brass completely fails to understand what sort of war is fought in Chechnya... this is a war of a different sort; it is almost a classic guerrilla war".
The number of Chechen rebels steadily increases whenever Russian forces enter a region - as the local men leave their day jobs and take up arms."
A reader who looks at a map of Russia would wonder why President Boris Yeltsin and his closest aides and advisers should worry about Chechnya. Mr. Yeltsin has won a second term, and that's it. No more polls. General Alexander Lebed, on the other hand, looks forward, we are sure, to the next election.
He will be challenged by the Communist party, Gennadi Zyuganov or any other 'comrade'.
If Lebed pulls off a negotiated deal which brings peace to a Chechnya that will enjoy an autonomy just short of independence, he will surely be the strongest candidate for the Presidency.
And Yeltsin, hardly the healthiest man in Moscow, will probably step down next year.
The Communist party may well be the ultimate "winner" as the largest country in the world prepares for a winter of discontent, with little hope for the issues for war and peace to be settled this year.
Excerpts from a speech given by Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar at a dinner in honour of British Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, in Colombo last night.
Sri Lanka enjoys many legacies from the British period of our history - foremost among them the English language which has equipped us to find, and hold, a place in the wide world beyond our shores; parliamentary democracy based on universal adult franchise has found a natural habitat in our country, a system of government which has its faults but remains the best devised by mankind to promote and protect personal liberty and collective freedom; and do not discount the complex and mystifying game of cricket at which Sri Lanka now excels.
Our peoples are bound together by many links - historical, linguistic, institutional and personal. One of those links is quite unique. The British people and the Sri Lankan people are much given to laughter. Our peoples laugh at themselves, they mock their institutions, they poke fun at their governments. Both peoples revel in making a joke of anything and everything. And long may that be so. An ounce of wit is a sure antidote to the poison of pomposity. Since wit is the enemy of pomposity and pomposity is the friend of autocracy, wit becomes the ally of freedom. When it becomes dangerous to laugh, freedom is endangered. When the freedom to laugh is stifled, as it is in so many countries, freedom dies. We Sri Lankans owe the British people an enormous debt of gratitude for showing our citizens that it is not treason to rile their rulers, their masters, their institutions. British comedy and comedians have become part of our culture. It must be remembered that the British people were laughing at their own rulers when their rulers ruled the world.
Two of our great professions - the law and medicine - have strong links with the United Kingdom. Both professions are noted of their sense of humour.
As for lawyers my Right Honorable and learned friend and I know that we lawyers are not blessed with the adulation of the people. But we have no pretensions to their affection. I recall a story told by an old colleague, a British Queens Counsel, of two friends who took a ride in a balloon. Suddenly the wind dropped and the balloon began to descend rapidly. They saw a man standing in a field. One of them called out to the man: 'Where are we?' The man shouted back: 'In a balloon'. The questioner turned to his companion in the balloon and said with disgust; 'That man is a lawyer'. The friend said: 'How do you know that?'. The other said: 'Why? His answer was short, concise, accurate - and utterly useless'.
Doctors learn to laugh from their student days. They are full of jokes and pranks. Many of our doctors go to the United Kingdom for their higher education. They return full of distinction and plunge into the service of the people. With the passage of years, however, the urge to serve tends to slacken noticeably. Perhaps Voltaire was right when he said:
'the art of medicine consists of amusing the patient while nature cures the disease'.
And next, I come to that group of men and women, loved by the people, dedicated, honest, reliable, the treasure of our societies. If you think I am describing the clergy, you are wrong. If you think I am describing politicians describing themselves you are right. My Right Honorable friend and I, Ministers, an Members of Parliament belong to this noble breed. At West Minster Members of Parliament are not designated honorable. But in fact most of them are. In Sri Lanka all Members of Parliament are designated honorable, but in fact most of us, they say, are probably........I leave you to complete the sentence because something must be left to your imagination. It is said that politicians are full of words - that is not my opinion. It is the opinion of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. She said:
'In politics, if you want anything said, ask a man; if you want anything done, ask a woman'.
Whether this is thought to be true or not for Sri Lanka will depend, of course, on whether your politics are blue or green. Admittedly it is tough being a politician. Half your reputation is ruined by lies: the other half is ruined by the truth.
All countries have a home for politicians who having served the country diligently, honestly and efficiently, wish to rest from their arduous labors and make way for others. In the United Kingdom you have the House of Lords. We used to have the Diplomatic Service.
I did not realize that the United Kingdom also has an ethnic problem until I made a speech in England some decades ago in the course of which I said innocently that in the United Kingdom regional diversities had been erased in the national interest. To my astonishment this statement was met with incredulous laughter by a lively audience of English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh participants.
Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, tonight I wish to recall the elegant tribute paid by one of our most distinguished Prime Ministers, the late Mr. S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, to the British people when he replied to the Speech of the Duke of Gloucester who opened the First Session of our Parliament after the attainment of Independence on the 10th of February, 1948. Mr. Bandaranaike said:
"Now, after a long slumber of servitude, we are again awakening to a new life of freedom. Without bitterness, without strife and turmoil, we have achieved independence. It is fitting that we should recall with appreciation the instinct of justice and fairplay, the vision, the imagination, and the high sense of realism that have induced the British people to part with power voluntarily, with grace and with dignity, and to convert, it might almost be said with a stroke of the pen, discontented subjects into equals and friends. There are some who accuse Britain of weakness in her abandonment of imperial domination. But if this is weakness, I venture to think it is weakness that is strong enough for peace."
What we must never forget is that the British and Ceylonese peoples parted as friends in 1948. We are friends now and we will always remain friends under all circumstances.
United Kindgom-Sri Lanka relations have stood the test of time. Despite the strains and challenges of a changing world, the traditionally warm and friendly relations between our countries have grown in strength and scope. This resilience is rooted in our shared history and common values. The peoples of our countries have been in contact with each other for nearly two centuries. Despite the obvious stresses of the colonial period and the challenges of the post-independence period, we have steadily nurtured mutual understanding and respect and advanced our common interests. Our friendship has grown progressively.
The excellent political relations we enjoy are paralleled by expanding economic relations. This is signified by the growing volume and quality of business interaction between the two countries particularly in the fields of investment and trade. The overall trade between the two countries expanded by over 25 per cent in 1994. Last year, our exports to the United Kingdom increased by 10 per cent in value terms. The United Kingdom has become the third largest market for our garments. A number of trade seminars held in Britain and Sri Lanka have laid the foundation for more of these promising trade partnerships. It is good to note that our businessmen, the British High Commission and groups such as the Sri Lanka-UK Business Council and the British Business Association continue to work together to consolidate and further develop these partnerships. Large British multinationals are investing in Sri Lanka.
While the mighty Victoria Dam will always remain a monumental reminder to us of the generosity of the British people, the British ODA continues to make significant contributions to our development efforts. I acknowledge with high appreciation the continued British ODA commitments to Sri Lanka despite their own budgetary constraints. I understand that the ODA resources have been well spent in Sri Lanka in fields such as the environment, human resource development and relief and rehabilitation. On this last point, I wish sincerely to thank Her Majesty's Government and the British High Commission in Colombo for taking expeditious action to help us implement our program for the reconstruction and rehabilitation of Jaffna. This program was initiated in the wake of the massive movement of Tamil civilians back to the Jaffna peninsula when it was cleared by the security forces. The British response of offering power generating equipment served as a good confidence building measure all round. We appreciate that tangible expression of support very much.
This upsurge of bilateral activity on several fronts has been further evidenced by a number of significant official visits in both directions. We recently received two Royal visitors, the Princess Anne and the Duke of Kent, 3 British Ministers and a multiparty Parliamentary delegation. On our side a number of my Cabinet colleagues have visited the United Kindgom to discuss matters of mutual interest.
Against this backdrop of dynamic bilateral activity, and in the contemporary international setting, it is particularly important to have Your Excellency visiting Sri Lanka at this juncture. As we recall it you are probably the first British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs to visit Sri Lanka since Earnest Bevin came here in the early fifties for talks which led to the promulgation of the Colombo Plan.
Internationally, we see bold cooperative efforts being undertaken against the scourge of terrorism which afflicts many countries including the United Kingdom and Sri Lanka. Democracies are particularly vulnerable to the activities of terrorists. They are able to strike indiscriminately with wanton brutality against civilian targets. Democratic Governments cannot, however, respond in kind as they cannot compromise democratic values and fundamental freedom. This dilemma makes collective action by democratic governments imperative. Only such joint action will be effective against terrorism whether such acts take place in Atlanta, in Manchester, in Tokyo or in Colombo. I was particularly pleased to note the active role played by Your Excellency and the British Government at the recently concluded G-7 meeting in Paris which proposed practical measures for international cooperation in dealing with the global problem of terrorism. Your thoughtful ideas on international action against the abuse of asylum, fund raising, sharing of expertise and information are particularly valuable in the current context of terrorist groups operating behind a deceptive facade of innocent looking front organizations. Our Government is looking forward to exchanging views with your Government on these valuable ideas. We will be working closely with your delegations at the United Nations to develop multilateral agreements to counter terrorism.
Our two countries, as democracies, must always stand together. We cannot yield to terrorism. Terrorism cannot be justified by any political objective. As democratic countries it is our duty to generate confidence amongst our people so that any pretext for terrorism is eliminated. Minority concerns need to be respected. Pluralistic societies have to be established and protected. Both in the United Kingdom and in Sri Lanka tolerance and respect for democratic values remain hallmarks of political and social life. We are encouraged by the support the British Government has given to our Government in our quest for promoting a democratic ethos under difficult socio-economic and political circumstances. We remain committed to the pursuit of that goal.Return to the News/Comment contents page
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