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World Watches As Russian Bear Awakes

The issue of Chechnya has been raised informally in the UN Security Council by individual members, but Russia has never allowed the matter to go further. The world is angry - but largely silent. John Howard reports.

Major world powers and several Islamic states have condemned Russia's campaign against Chechnya, but none are threatening sanctions or other measures.

The reason? Russia still has a huge army of concern to its immediate neighbours and few other countries are willing to anger Moscow's government or add to its fragility, especially at a time they are seeking better economic ties with Russia.

Moreover, many nations fear reinforcing the idea that the world should intervene over minority issues inside another country - something which could be used against Turkey, with its volatile Kurdish minority, or China with Tibet. Russia, with its veto in the UN Security Council, could also influence where UN troops might intervene in the future.

NATO's intervention in Kosovo, an internal minority issue, drew diplomatic and military support from many nations. But that was only after months of diplomatic efforts and repeated discussions with Slobodan Milosevic.

The West has a strong interest in preserving Russia in one piece. You can crush Serbia, and that was costly, but crushing or cracking Russia is inconceivable. Some countries fear that if Russia was weakened Yeltsin could fall and Russia could emerge with a radical leader.

President Clinton says Russia will pay a heavy price, but, went on to say that it would be a mistake for the US to cut off aid to Russia because of its military campaign.

"I don't think our interests would be furthered by terminating that," Clinton said.

Clinton also said he had "no sympathy" for Chechen rebels, even though he has criticised as too heavy-handed Russia's efforts to stamp out the rebellion.

Feelings in Muslim countries are running high but even they are reluctant to act.

Turkey has 10 percent of its population who trace their ancestry to Caucasus republics like Chechnya but it is unlikely to act. Turkey is battling Kurdish guerrillas in its southeast and it's also sensitive whenever countries criticise its internal military actions.

Significantly, as the cold winds of winter start to blow, Turkey is well aware that much of the country's heating oil comes from Russia.

Iran is in a similar position. Although it has dispatched aid to Chechnya, Tehran asked Moscow for permission to do it. Russia is also building a nuclear reactor in southern Iran and the two countries have close defence ties. Iran also has its own ethnic minorities.

Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country, is fighting several separatist movements and has said it will not get involved. "In Chechnya even though they are Muslims we will not get involved because it is Russia's internal problem," said foreign affairs spokesman, Sulaiman Abdulmanan.

Saudi Arabia has called on all Muslims to donate whatever they could to the Muslims of Kosovo and Chechnya. But Saudi Interior Minister, Prince Nayef, denies Russian accusations that his country was financing the rebels. "Saudi Arabia has nothing to do with whatever is going on in Chechnya," Prince Nayef said.

After some nine years of UN santions against Iraq Saddam Hussein is still in power and after 78 days of NATO bombing, Milosevic is still in power in Yugoslavia. Russia is a much bigger fish.

Many countries are acutely aware that there is nothing much they can do, or want to do, and consequently the Russian Bear is awakening.

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