But while they may be rather generously labeled "centrist" by the Western media, President Boris Yeltsin and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin have little interest in calling off the dogs of war in Chechnya. After all, the Chechnya campaign has been the single issue around which Putin has built his political credentials, and it certainly served him well in Sunday's Duma election, in which a party created only two months ago to represent him ran a close second to the Communists, signaling that the prime minister is the man to beat in next summer's presidential poll. More important, Chechnya worked for Putin not simply because he was seen to be acting tough on the separatists in the Caucasus, but also because he stuck out his jaw in the face of Western criticism. Whether they're voting for Communists or "centrists" appears to be less important than the signal that after eight years of democracy Russian voters want leaders who'll stand up to Washington.
Western relations with Moscow look set to deteriorate even as more centrist politicians have broken the Communists' grip on Russia's parliament. A U.S. bank on Tuesday canceled a $500 million loan to a Russian oil company at the behest of the White House, which cited "national interest." And although U.S. officials implied the move was based commercial concerns, the humanitarian tragedy unfolding in Chechnya has plainly come to overshadow relations between the two countries. Russian troops appeared to be moving in to storm Grozny Tuesday despite the presence of thousands of civilians in the free fire zone, and Moscow alarmed Western relief agencies Wednesday with a clumsy attempt to forcibly relocate thousands of Chechen refugees from Ingushetia by separating them from their children and loading them on trains the attempt was halted when Chechens protested by lying on the tracks.