Moscow's peace initiative: Will Chechens support it?

The Kremlin has ordered elections in Chechnya next spring, though rebels fight on.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Khava Magomadova is part of a Chechen "silent majority" the Kremlin hopes will back its latest political plan for ending the conflict in this mountain republic.

"We are exhausted with the years of violence and praying for peace," says Ms. Magomadova, a lighting technician at Chechnya's state-run TV station. "So many people have died; so many are still suffering. And what good has any of it brought us?"

Last week, President Vladimir Putin decreed that Chechens will vote next spring for a new constitution to give the republic limited self-government within Russia. This is to be followed by elections for a local parliament and president.

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At the same time, Moscow is creating Chechen government institutions - including an interior security force - in an effort to "Chechenize" Moscow's solution.

Mr. Putin is gambling that ordinary Chechens like Magomadova will abandon the still active rebels, who have led the republic to ruin, and embrace Moscow's writ. Interviews with Chechens here suggest the Kremlin could be half right.

"I don't have any feelings of support for the bandits," such as guerrilla leader Shamil Basayev and Chechen separatist president Aslan Maskhadov, says Magomadova. But she adds: "The Russians are the source of all our troubles. It is impossible to live on human terms with them. I feel trapped between two fires."

While virtually all Chechens say they yearn for peace, and many say the rebel dream of full independence for the tiny, mainly Muslim republic is unrealistic, few show any enthusiasm for Putin's new political plan. Those willing to speak about it say it is a hollow exercise, stage-managed from Moscow and designed to mask Russia's ongoing repression of any independent expression in Chechnya.

"I once believed that Chechnya would gain its freedom, but now I see Russia will never let us go," says Uvais Musayev, a local politician who also insists he does not support the rebels."We can only hope the world will wake up and do something to stop the genocide of the Chechen people."

Critics say the biggest flaw in Putin's plan is that it aims to install the institutions of peace before the war has ended.

"This is putting the cart before the horse," says Tatiana Kasadkina, executive director of Memorial, the only Russian human rights group with a regular presence in Chechnya. "First there must be peace talks that include those who are actually fighting." Though Moscow claims the war is over and that only "targeted" operations against specific bandits are continuing, the presence of some 80,000 Russian troops, the ubiquitous security checkpoints, and the nightly gunfire in Grozny all indicate otherwise.

Chechnya's new deputy minister of interior, Salam Salamov, admits it is hard going for those Chechens who opt to serve Moscow.

"More than 240 of our (Chechen) militiamen have been killed and hundreds injured," by rebels over the past two years, he says. "Only if the situation in the republic stabilizes will it become safe to be a Chechen militiaman."

The other main drawback to the political plan is that it depends too heavily on the Kremlin's handpicked leader for the republic, Akhmad Kadyrov, who appears to be widely loathed by fellow Chechens. "Kadyrov ceased to be a Chechen long ago," says Mr. Musayev, echoing an often voiced sentiment. "He's a puppet of Moscow."

Mr. Kadyrov has used the resources handed to him by Moscow to pack Chechnya's administration with his own supporters and to squeeze out his opponents - even those who are staunchly pro-Russian.

Last week Kadyrov presided over a self-styled "Congress of Chechen Peoples" in his home base of Gudermes, involving about 400 of his own appointees and backers from around the republic. A more broadly based assembly organized by another group, which was slated to include rebel sympathizers, was postponed until next year under Kremlin pressure.

"The fate of these two congresses shows there is no unity at all among the Chechens," says Konstantin Simonov, deputy director of the independent Center for Political Trends in Moscow.

"We see at least two groups vying for the Kremlin's favor. But it is Kadyrov who seems on track to be annointed as president of Chechnya."

The idea of a Moscow-managed "Chechen" political solution to the historic challenge posed by Chechen separatism is hardly new. During the 1994-96 war, the first of two in recent years in Chechnya, the Kremlin sponsored the election of a local parliament and hailed its chairman, former Communist Party secretary Doku Zavgayev, as the republic's legitimate leader. But after rebels defeated the Russian Army, Mr. Zavgayev headed for exile in Moscow and the pro-Russian legislature evaporated.

The only widely recognized democratic polls ever held in Chechnya, in early 1997, saw Mr. Maskhadov elected as the republic's president.

But since a Chechen suicide squad seized 800 hostages in a Moscow theater in October, Russia has sought to tar even the relatively moderate Maskhadov as a terrorist, and thus not an eligible negotiating partner.

"The Kremlin is backing itself into a corner, in which there will be no one to talk to except its own appointees," says Ms. Kasadkina. "This means the political process cannot work, and violence may even escalate."

But other experts say Putin, who was elected on the strength of his hard line against Chechen rebels, cannot behave otherwise. "There is as much chance of Putin negotiating with Maskhadov as there is of George Bush talking to [Afghan Taliban leader] Mullah Omar," says Vyacheslav Nikonov, director of the Politika Foundation, an independent Moscow think tank.

Putin's political plan has a chance of working, while a similar elected Chechen leadership collapsed in 1996, only because, "this time Russian troops intend to stay," says Mr. Nikonov.

Chechnya's pro-Moscow Deputy Interior Minister Salamov agrees. "Putin's latest announcements give us hope that we won't be abandoned again," he says. "When people see the regime is irreversible, then the process will move faster. But if we again see Russian troops withdrawing, then things will fall apart."

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