Chance for Chechen peace wanes

Thursday, Russian officials vowed to 'wipe out' commanders of Chechnya's resistance.

Responding to a direct challenge to his rule – and riding a wave of popular support in the aftermath of the Moscow hostage drama – President Vladimir Putin is escalating the war in Chechnya.

Kremlin officials are ruling out any peace talks to end the brutal three-year conflict, as Russians tearfully gather at rain-soaked funerals to mourn those killed during the climax of the theater siege last Saturday.

"Give me the name of a single leader who we can have talks with there – I don't know such leaders," Sergei Yastrzhembsky, Putin's aide on Chechnya, said Thursday. "We have to wipe out the commanders of the movement."

Despite momentum for a Chechnya crackdown, this rising tide of militant talk – for the moment, at least – may sweep away renewed chances for peace, which, some analysts argue, have emerged in the aftermath of the crisis.

"Putin has achieved a good background to start peace talks, because he is a winner at the peak of his success, who can treat the Chechens as losers," says Alexei Malashenko, a Chechnya specialist with the Carnegie Moscow Center. "If he misses this opportunity, it will be very bad."

But that chance appears to be dissipating, as the Kremlin continues to equate its conflict in Chechnya as an extension of America's declared "war on terror," and publicly rules out anything but a military solution.

While that may win points with Russians in the short term, most Russians say they are tired of this war, and its habit of yielding grisly surprises like the theater siege. Rebels shot down a military helicopter in September, killing 118 troops. Another was shot down Tuesday, killing four.

"The majority of this society are proud about storming the theater and the military solution to a terrorist act in Moscow," says Mr. Malashenko. "But tomorrow or the day after, they will once again begin to think about a peaceful solution."

Prior to the hostage crisis, the sense was growing, even among some senior officials, that Russia's bloody war on the separationists can't be won militarily. Senior officials had begun to speak of need for a political process to emerge.

But today a tougher line is taking hold. Some 30 to 40 ethnic Chechens had been arrested in Moscow by press time in a citywide crackdown that Interior Minister Boris Gryzlov described as "unprecedented measures to uncover a terrorist network."

Russian security services Thursday released tapes of telephone conversations that they said were intercepts from inside the theater, in which the hostage-takers spoke of 100 pre-positioned suicide bombers, all with legal Russian documents, that were "ready to work after a telephone call," the Interfax news agency reported.

However, despite a rising death toll that now stands at 120 civilians, a poll of 1600 Russians released Tuesday found that 85 percent were "positive" about Putin's actions. And even though support for the Chechnya war has been dropping throughout Russia, from a high of 70 percent in 2000 to just 34 percent last September – with support for launching peace talks jumping in the same period from 22 to 57 percent – more than half of Russians now back "decisive measures" such as "massive bombardment" of rebel bases.

Russia convinced Denmark on Wednesday to arrest Akhmed Zakayev, a close adviser of Chechen president-turned-rebel chief Aslan Maskhadov, and one of the few rebel leaders seen as a potential moderate negotiating partner.

"Cynical as it may sound, the [hostage drama] was a kind of present, that could yield something good," says Anna Politikovskaya, a Russian journalist and author who has reported extensively from inside Chechnya and who, at the request of Russian officials, negotiated with the hostage-takers for five hours.

Ms. Politikovskaya says that despite hard-line official declarations in the past, Russia has often kept contacts open with rebel representatives – a link that she expected the Kremlin to renew again this time. Politikovskaya has been involved in such contacts in the past.

"I thought Putin might use this chance to solve the situation in a good way, but it seems the choice is force, and this leads nowhere," she says.

That means the "impulsive reaction" will win the day, says Pavel Baev, at the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo. "Putin is a bureaucratic animal. For him, any sign of weakness, any sign of extra flexibility is a risk."

"It's much easier to take this new tough line," Mr. Baev says. "But in opting for a more aggressive approach to Chechen resistance – if you can imagine a more aggressive approach – Putin risks becoming a hostage to that. It's a trap, because backpedaling will be much more difficult."

One problem is that Kremlin strategists now accuse Mr. Maskhadov of supporting terrorism. "Mashkadov can no longer be considered a legitimate representative of this resistance," said Yastrzhembsky Thursday.

Maskhadov was popularly elected by 59 percent of Chechens during elections in 1997. Though considered a moderate, this summer he reportedly forged an alliance with the more radical rebel military commander, Shamil Basayev.

Movsar Barayev, leader of the hostage-takers, told the Sunday Times (London) during the crisis that his orders came from Maskhadov and Mr. Basayev.

Senior American officials say that, even before the hostage crisis, the US had determined that Maskhadov was "damaged goods."

"One of the ways this may go is the Russians send a message to Maskhadov saying: 'This is it. If you were going to have any future role you must break with the extremists now,' "says Anatol Lieven, author of "Chechnya: Tombstone of Russia Power," who is with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "What I'm terrified of – this being Russia – is they won't capture him, but will in fact kill him, either or deliberately or accidentally, and any hope of a negotiated settlement will go out the window."

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