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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 / December 19, 2002


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.

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"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.

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."