Life in a 'model' Chechen town

Russian troops captured a rebel stronghold last week. But the campaign for trust has just begun.

This was supposed to be a model for postwar Chechnya, an example of how to reconstruct society now that Russia appears to be winding down its five-month-old military campaign against Muslim separatists.

Russian troops proudly point out that since they "liberated" this village in mid-October, they have restored electricity and order to a place that had descended into banditry and chaos.

But they seem to be losing the battle for the hearts and minds of many locals, a crucial element for any chance of long-term peace.

Rolls of barbed wire outside the provisional town hall keep out crowds of angry women, whose complaints go unheard at meetings. Refugees arriving from the ruined Chechen capital, Grozny, say they are given no food or shelter.

"Has it gotten better with the Russians? They've taken away our male relatives, we don't know where they went. Our property was looted," says Zina Menkailova, an elderly woman whom authorities tried to shoo away from visiting reporters. "They say we are free. But this is not peace."

A younger woman standing next to her, Melhazni Zaidelhanova, complains she is the victim of a bureaucratic Catch-22. "My passport was lost. But they won't issue me a new one because I'm from another village. But I can't go back there to get a new one, because I need a passport to travel. Besides, there's nothing to go back to. My home was destroyed."

Alexander Goltz, a leading Russian military commentator, says it will be hard to restore civil society. "Everything depends on money and the integrity of the local commanders and police. I doubt we have people capable of the specific skills needed."

Last week with the fall of Shatoi, the last southern rebel stronghold, the Russian military declared it had taken control of most of the breakaway Muslim republic. But the separatists appear far from vanquished. On Thursday, the ambush of a Russian convoy in Grozny left at least 20 Interior Ministry troops dead. There were reports of attacks on Russian police stations in the capital yesterday, as well as fighting around the Argun Gorge in southern Chechnya. In Russia's previous, unsuccessful, military campaign from 1994 to 1996, federal troops seized most of the territory but eventually were driven out when Chechen forces regrouped.

Aside from the rebels' ability to wage an indefinite guerrilla war from the mountains, no one expects civic restoration to be easy. Many towns were severely damaged in the previous campaign. The destruction inflicted during the current operation is even worse. Grozny was so battered by relentless airstrikes that sections are merely rubble. The Army has been blowing up the few remaining structures to prevent them being used as sniper hideouts. Russian officials, wanting to wipe out this symbol of resistance, have said they may relocate the capital instead of rebuilding it.

The Moscow government, which has not explained the eventual civilian rule it envisages for Chechnya, has not specified what it plans to do with the nearly quarter of a million displaced Chechens.

Add to this morass the breakdown of civil society after the first war: Oil installations were attacked, industries closed, and kidnappings became commonplace. The lawlessness caused disillusionment among Chechens with the government of Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov. "It was complete anarchy after [Russian troops left in] 1996. People were struggling to eat," says Abdul Magomedov, an unemployed young man ambling aimlessly through a central square with several friends. But, he adds, "We still don't have work. We don't need [Acting President Vladimir] Putin. We have our own president."

Mr. Putin said two weeks ago that some $1.6 million had been spent on economic restoration in Chechnya and an additional $64.4 million would be allocated. Far too little, according to most economists. Even Putin's special envoy in Chechnya, Nikolai Koshman, has said that at least 11 billion rubles ($384 million) would be needed for reconstruction.

And the sum does not take into account the human factor, something that the police and Interior Ministry troops moving in to restore peacetime order may be ill-equipped to handle. Chechens have been chafing at Moscow's central rule for more than 150 years. Not even mass deportation by former Soviet leader Joseph Stalin quelled their desire for independence.

Even though many residents of this town told Islamic-separatist rebels to leave and welcomed the Russians, some have grown resentful of their treatment. Shortly after arriving, soldiers went from house to house seizing everything from bread to furniture. They estranged more townspeople by rounding up men as suspected militants and demanding bribes to free them.

Col. Sergei Mikhailov, deputy military commander of this area, concedes all is not perfect. But he denies that federal forces are resented as occupiers. "There are many problems, but at least there's no shooting. We need to keep enough military forces here to maintain law and order. The people don't want us to leave," he says. "The last war we fought the whole time. This time we're rebuilding."

Attempts to set up a new local militia have met with little success. So far, only one Chechen has been recruited. And in this village, authorities appear to be concentrating on improving life for the 9,000 legal residents, not the dozens of displaced. Viktor Tuituinnikov, head of the Interior Ministry operation here, says, "They are not refugees per se because they are staying with relatives. So they haven't been helped."

Timur Muzayev of Moscow's Panorama Foundation, an independent think tank, forsees a backlash if the new rulers don't get it right. "Chechens are irritated by the violence of occupational forces. If the punitive attitude of federal troops continues, it will spark a wave of resistance organized, not by the separatists, but by ordinary Chechens."

Perhaps authorities would do well to listen to schoolteacher Galina Ilenovzaeva, a Russian who is married to a Chechen. She believes the town would have a brighter future if the federals let locals play a bigger role in running their own affairs. "You know your neighbors," she says. "It's easier to deal with them."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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