As the celebrations to usher in the year 2000 began, news came through that the Russian President, Boris Yeltsin, had resigned and had appointed the Prime Minister Vladimir Putin as acting President, pending elections in March this year.

“Yeltsin’s announcement on New Year’s Eve caught the world by surprise as he announced his resignation.

“‘Today, on the last day of the outgoing century, I resign,’ Mr Yeltsin said. ‘I have been replaced by a new generation. I have charged the head of the government, Vladimir Putin, to take over my duties. The people will decide the rest in three months.’

“The resignation appeared timed to capitalize on the success of pro-Kremlin centrist parties in recent parliamentary elections. Parties backing Mr Putin scored unexpectedly well, adding to the drive to put him into the Kremlin as Mr Yeltsin’s successor.”

The Advertiser, 1/1/2000

Vladimir Putin himself had been appointed as Prime Minister by Boris Yeltsin last year, after Islamic militants from Chechnya alarmed the Kremlin with a series of incursions into neighbouring Dagestan. Four years ago, Boris Yeltsin had led Russia to defeat in the Chechen war of 1994–96. With the appointing of Vladimir Putin as Prime Minister with an obvious brief to solve the Chechen problem, Boris Yeltsin hoped that if successful, both his and Putin’s stakes, and the Kremlin’s, would rise with the Russian people.

There is a real incentive for Mr Putin to solve the Chechen crisis because the real prize is not political autonomy for the Chechens, but oil! A major pipeline from the Caspian Sea and the rich Caucasus oil reserves cuts across Dagestan and Chechnya, and Russia under Mr Putin or anyone for that matter, does not intend ceding this oil-rich territory which generates desperately needed hard currency, under any circumstances. The Chechen war is seen by Mr Putin and the Russian generals as an opportunity to re-establish Russia’s credentials as a great power on the world’s stage.

“A powerful backlash is beginning to coil, a Slavic jingoism born in desperation, fed by resentment of Western might and exploited by even the most liberal Russian politicians.

“This is the context in which the Kremlin, eyeing the presidential election next June, is casting the war as a Russian wake-up call–a ‘don’t tread on me’ warning to domestic bandits and foreign critics alike, from a people whose faces are black with heel marks.

“‘Those early signs of being Westernized, they were all superficial,’ Leonid Sedov, an analyst with Moscow’s Public Opinion Foundation, said in an interview. ‘What’s happening is that Russia is taking her own special course, and it’s very dangerous.’

“All these themes, and more, are braided in Chechnya. The Russian military was mortified there in 1996 when the Kremlin yanked it out before it could be decimated by urban guerillas in the streets of Grozny, the Chechen capital.

“The current war offers generals the chance to wipe that slate clean and regain a measure of influence in Mr Yeltsin’s weakened government.

“Military policy-makers are bristling over US attempts to fill the power vacuum along the old Soviet Union’s shrunken borders. NATO’s threemonth bombing campaign against Yugoslavia last spring was, in retrospect, a fault line in USRussian relations.

“Chechnya provides a chance to re-assert Russian military strength in its own backyard, and to show that Moscow will not surrender its old spheres of influence so easily.

“Foreign-policy strategists here have abandoned the gauzy notion of a decade ago that Moscow and Washington would together make the world safe for democracy; now they see the West mostly as a rival, if not a threat.

“To Russia’s foreign policy strategists, subduing Chechnya keeps Russia in the pipeline game, since a stable Chechnya is central to building new routes nearby or enlarging pipelines already in the area. And it allows the Kremlin to return the thumb-in-the-eye that it clearly believes has been delivered by the United States and its allies on issues from pipelines to economic reform. To the political elite, Chechnya is as much electoral as military strategy. Given a chance to wave Russia’s tricolor instead of lamenting its decline, virtually every politician in the nation has closed ranks behind the Kremlin and against its foreign human-rights critics.”

International Herald Tribune, 22/11/99

When Mr Putin, a former KGB officer, was appointed as Prime Minister in August last year, his popularity rating was only 2%. But his brutal military actions against the Chechen separatists, and no-nonsense manner, has proven to be very popular with the Russian people, and with a popularity rating now around 70% he is considered to be a front-runner in the presidential elections to be held on 26 March this year.

With echoes of past USA President Gerald Ford’s pardon of former disgraced President Nixon for wrong-doing, acting President Putin rewarded the favours bestowed on him by Boris Yeltsin by granting Mr Yeltsin immunity from criminal or administrative prosecution for any wrong-doing committed during his eight years of presidency.

So the stage is set for yet another change in Russian leadership, and indications are that if Mr Putin is successful he will rule Russia with great power.

It is significant that in the recent elections for the Russian parliament (the Duma), Mr Putin asked people to vote for those whom he supported. The party Mr Putin supported was called Unity—otherwise known as “The Bear”. This party, only recently created in September 1999 by the Kremlin, surprised political analysts when it won 23.32% of the vote for the 450-seat Duma parliamentary elections held last December, just a fraction behind the 24.22% for the Communists. Unity’s chief, Mr Sergei Shoigu, has been appointed as Emergencies Minister in Mr Putin’s cabinet. Clearly “The Bear” is on the rise, and coupled with the meteoric rise in popularity of Mr Putin, interesting days lie ahead for Russia.

Mr Putin is seen as a leader capable of decisive action that has been lacking in Yeltsin’s latter years. Comments in The Advertiser of 4/1/2000 under the heading “Putin sets out to woo a nation” illustrate Mr Putin’s style.

“With carefully-chosen words and a few wellorchestrated deeds, Vladimir Putin is winning hearts and minds in Russia and has concocted a style designed to convince the population they have a new and competent protector.

“‘When the leadership is indecisive, the people will not forgive it… when civil peace is endangered, the government must act forcefully and effectively,’ Mr Putin said last year as he launched an offensive in Chechnya.

“Alternating between street slang and high political rhetoric, Mr Putin has in recent weeks become the champion of a ‘new state ideology based on patriotism… by reviving a feeling of national pride among a humiliated citizenry’, one political analyst said. The key to Mr Putin, said this and other experts, is that he ‘stays on message’, and that message is: Russia is still a great power and should be treated like one. ‘Russia will not be dictated to, and will use all diplomatic and militarypolitical means at its disposal (to prevent this),’ Mr Putin said recently, as he recalled that the country was still protected by a ‘nuclear shield’. “As part of his crusade, Mr Putin has also gone out of his way to stroke the military at each opportune occasion.

“Analysts say that his words and deeds serve to project a confidence in himself and, by implication, in Russia, that has not been seen in this patriotic country in many years.

“As his judo instructor told a television station, Mr Putin ‘is a sportsman with an unshakeable will, who always achieves his goal and who does not hesitate in making his decisions’.”

Mr Putin’s reference to Russia’s nuclear shield was in harmony with Boris Yeltsin’s angry outburst against President Clinton in December last year after criticism by the USA and other Western powers of Russia’s handling of the Chechen crisis. Under the heading “Yeltsin raises nuclear threat”, The Advertiser, 11/12/99 reported that Mr Yeltsin was in no mood to be pushed around.

“Boris Yeltsin brandished his nuclear firepower at the West yesterday as he raised the stakes over Chechnya.

“The Kremlin leader hit back at international criticism of Russia’s bloody military offensive in the north Caucasus as he shunned the West and aligned Moscow with communist China.

“But it was Mr Yeltsin’s outburst that caused most shockwaves as he lambasted Mr Clinton’s criticism of Russia over attacks on civilians in Grozny.

“‘It seems Mr Clinton has forgotten Russia is a great power that possesses a full nuclear arsenal,’ said the 68-year-old leader. ‘We aren’t afraid at all of Clinton’s anti-Russian position.

“‘I want to tell President Clinton that he alone cannot dictate how the world should live, work and play. “‘It is us who will dictate’. ”

And now Mr Putin has made it clear that neither will he be pushed around by the USA or other Western powers.

The Russian bear is on the rise again, but as we know, when he shall have attained to the plenitude of his power and dominion, and “shall plant the tabernacles of his palace between the seas in the glorious holy mountain; yet he shall come to his end, and none shall help him” (Daniel 11:45).

Further Peace Developments in the Middle East—But Jerusalem Still a Burdensome Stone

After a break of nearly four years, peace talks between Israel and Syria have resumed, with discussions taking place in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, hosted by the USA. At issue between the two nations is the Golan Heights and the security of Israel.

On one hand Syria wants the return of the Golan Heights captured by Israel in 1967 in the famous Six-Day War. On the other hand Israel in return, if she is to give back all or most of the Golan Heights, wants peaceful borders and security guarantees with Syria, including an end to the bloodshed with Lebanon. Israeli officials believe Syria, with more than 30 000 troops inside Lebanon, holds the key to ending the fighting in Lebanon.

Nobody believes that the peace talks will make swift progress but the fact that the two nations are talking at all indicates how far the peace process has developed since the signing of the peace accord between Israel and the PLO on The White House lawns in 1993.The Israeli Prime Minister, Mr Ehud Barak, has made it very clear that he wishes to make the year 2000 an important milestone in the peace process. He has already given commitments to withdraw his forces from the 850 sq km security zone in Southern Lebanon in July, and is looking for a reciprocal response from President Assad of Syria to withdraw his forces from Lebanon as well.

The Australian Financial Review, 4/1/2000 reported on Mr Barak’s desire for peace.

“We hope we will not have to wait a millennium, a century, or even a decade, but that we will find the means to make peace with our neighbours this year.”

To sell Israelis on surrendering the Golan Heights, Mr Barak needs to convince the Israeli people he is not risking their security on water rights. He has promised a national referendum on the issue. Polls show Israelis are evenly divided about giving up the strategic area, but Mr Barak is confident “we will win the referendum with a large and sweeping majority” (The Sydney Morning Herald, 10/12/99).

Comments from The Weekend Australian, 18– 19 December 1999, sum up the volatile situation.

“For Syria’s ailing President Hafez Assad, the return of the Golan Heights will not only crown his authoritarian rule but help assure the succession of his 35-year-old son, Bashar.

“For Israel and Barak, the stakes are even higher. The Golan Heights are the key to supplies of precious water and, in the explosive cockpit of the region, they are of towering strategic importance. “US President Bill Clinton desperately wants an Israeli-Syrian settlement as a trophy in his hunt for a presidential legacy. But he and his Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, will have diplomatic heights to climb if this is to be achieved.”

If a peace agreement between Israel, Syria and Lebanon is reached, it will mean that for the first time since the formation of the State in 1948, Israel will have peace and security on all her borders.

Leaving aside the folly of Israel giving away land promised by God to her fathers, the fact remains that Ezekiel 38 makes it very clear that prior to Gog’s invasion of Israel, the people would be dwelling safely. This aspect is repeated three times in the chapter—verses 8,11,14—surely indicating the importance of the subject. Time will tell whether the current peace talks will be successful, but we wait with eager anticipation the continuing miraculous outworking of Bible prophecy.

The Final Status of Jerusalem?

But regardless of whether a peace accord is reached with Syria in the near future, there is one single issue that would appear to be beyond a solution in the peace process—the final status of Jerusalem.

For Israelis, Jerusalem, rightly so, is the undivided capital of their nation, but Yasser Arafat and the Palestinians also lay claim to the Eastern half of the city. A number of the world’s powers, including the Vatican, do not accept Israel’s claim to the city as their capital. Many would like to see the city become an international city belonging to neither Jews nor Arabs as originally proposed in the 1947 UNO partition plan for Palestine.

Clearly the status of Jerusalem will continue to be a major issue in months to come, as is recognised by Cameron Forbes writing in The Weekend Australian, 18–19 December 1999.

“The road to peace will eventually have to run into the rock of the status of Jerusalem the Golden. Israelis, by force of arms, have made the city their undivided capital and insist that is how it will remain, but for Palestinians, a state without East Jerusalem as its capital would be a homeland without a heart.

“The Israeli-Syrian track starts and ends with the Golan Heights, with the captured Syrian land handed back in return for a secure Israel. Jerusalem is layer upon layer of history and symbolism, a crowded focus for three of the world’s great religions.”

We should not be at all surprised at this issue becoming the final stumbling block to lasting peace, by human hands, in the Middle East.

The prophet Zechariah made it very clear how Jerusalem will be a burdensome rock for all people.

“And in that day will I make Jerusalem a burdensome stone for all people: all that burden themselves with it shall be cut in pieces, though all the people of the earth be gathered together against it” (Zechariah 12:3).

“For I will gather all nations against Jerusalem to battle; and the city shall be taken, and the houses rifled, and the women ravished; and half of the city shall go forth into captivity, and the residue of the people shall not be cut off from the city” (Zechariah 14:2).

It is intriguing to observe how that Cameron Forbes, apparently without any scriptural knowledge, should speak of the road to peace running into “the rock of the status of Jerusalem the Golden”!!

We are living in dramatic days. May we through God’s grace maintain our faith until the end so that we will be amongst the spiritual defenders of God’s people and assist in making Jerusalem a true city of peace.