Moscow Braces for a Boris 'Emergency'

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Russians may pay heavily for the nationís latest little war in the Caucasus -- with their political freedom. Although Moscow has admitted losing only 10 troops in a week of fighting and has vowed to drive Islamic insurgents out of Dagestan within two weeks, Russian reinforcements pouring into the region amid intensified fighting Friday suggest a longer and more brutal conflict. Back in Moscow, thereís widespread speculation that President Boris Yeltsin will use the Dagestan fighting as a pretext to declare a state of emergency -Ė which would allow him to cling to power by canceling Decemberís parliamentary elections and next summerís presidential poll. "It wonít necessarily happen, but itís a very serious possibility," says TIME Moscow correspondent Yuri Zarakhovich. "He was on the verge of doing it when the Chechnya war began and again in 1996, and today his situation is more desperate than ever. Heís in bad shape physically, mentally and politically; he has no moral authority and the economy is still a disaster. Heíll let go of power only when can guarantee the safety of his family and himself, and he may decide that a state of emergency is his only option."

Yeltsin on Friday asked the Duma, the Russian parliament, not only to approve his appointee, intelligence chief Vladimir Putin, as prime minister, but also to approve a new law simplifying procedures for declaring a state of emergency. "The situation in the North Caucasus shows that this law is essential," a Yeltsin spokesman said. Putin can significantly boost his political prestige by swiftly resolving the Dagestan crisis. But if it drags out into another bloody war, it will ruin the election chances of Yeltsinís anointed heir -Ė and that may, in turn, tempt the president to avoid the election altogether.