War-Weary Chechens And Russians Try for Peace

AS a 48-hour truce stilled the guns here in Chechnya this week, and top military commanders from both sides met for a second round of talks yesterday, hopes rose for an end to the two-month-old war in this breakaway republic.

But even as hundreds of Chechens gathered by the roadside to greet their military chief of staff, Gen. Aslan Maskhadov, anxious to hear that he had brought peace from his talks with Russian military chief Gen. Anatoly Kulikov, fighters here prepared for battle.

''I hope that the cease-fire will be prolonged, but I doubt it,'' says Khalid Amarpashayev, as he directs preparations for the defense of this city, 20 miles east of Grozny. ''The Russians say one thing and do another.''

Yet there were reasons for optimism about the cease-fire's future yesterday, not least the fact that the 48-hour truce that started on Tuesday was generally respected, unlike a similar agreement last month.

And as the two warring generals discussed the technicalities of prisoner swaps and the return of bodies, both had grounds for wanting the shooting to stop.

The Chechen capital, Grozny, is now almost completely in Russian hands. But having clubbed the city into submission through a brutal combination of air raids and artillery bombardment that has razed the center to the ground, the Russians appear to have decided, in light of domestic and international criticism, that once is enough for such indiscriminate violence.

''It is clear that we cannot again use the same tactics as we did in Grozny,'' General Kulikov said in an interview with the Monitor a few days after being given overall command of the Chechnya campaign earlier this month. ''A more diplomatic approach is called for.''

Nor do the Russians have enough men to be able to capture and secure every village in southern Chechnya, where the bulk of the population is loyal to its self-proclaimed president, Dzhokhar Dudayev, a former Soviet general who declared independence from Russia in 1991.

No one has recognized the republic's independence, though the Chechens are well known for fiercely resisting Russian rule. After a long struggle, they knuckled under to the czar in 1864. Bitterness between the Kremlin and Chechens has grown since then, especially after World War II when Stalin had Chechens deported en masse for alleged cooperation with the Nazis. Many Chechens have seen this most recent bid for independence as their best chance in centuries.

An attempt by Russia to control all of southern Chechnya, which is still in Chechen control, would mean turning every village and town into a garrison, and leave patrolling Russian soldiers constantly at the mercy of guerrilla attacks.

On the other hand, the tactics the Russians have used so far against General Dudayev's fighters in the countryside -- rocketing villages from helicopter gunships or shelling them with tanks -- have proved singularly ineffective at rooting them out. Instead, such attacks have killed large numbers of civilians and hardened Chechen hearts against the Russian invaders.

The Chechens, on the other hand, are reluctant to risk more destruction of their communities. Even families who have willingly sent sons to the front are primarily concerned that their homes should not be damaged, and there is not a village in Chechnya that has not taken in hundreds of refugees, mostly from the destroyed capital.

Although Chechen fighters say they are ready for a prolonged guerrilla war if Russian troops stay in their republic, the prospect is an unsettling one for most of the population.

Chechens strike a deal

The village of Achkhoi Martan in southwestern Chechnya is an example of how civilians in the countryside, anxious to keep their communities out of trouble, have sought to spare themselves from the ravages of war.

Although armed Chechen fighters freely roam the muddy ramshackle village, which sits astride a dried-up river bed, and man checkpoints on nearby roads, Mayor Salamu Umalatov has done a deal with Russian troops to keep the fighting at bay.

''Thanks to our discussions [with Russian Army Gen. Ivan Chernikh], the villages in our district have not been destroyed,'' he said. ''We agreed not to let anybody shoot at them from our area, and they agreed not to shoot at us.''

But Mayor Umalatov's faith in the Russians has been badly shaken by the way Army troops betrayed a similar agreement they had struck with the local authorities in a neighboring region.

Russians break the deal

''People in the village of Assin Ovskaya believed the Russians' promises, the fighters left, and then the [Russian] Army came in and destroyed the village'' two weeks ago, Umalatov explained. ''So how can we believe them?''

Such mistrust animates the rebel fighters in Gudermes, Chechnya's second-largest city, where the Russians are expected to launch an assault imminently if the cease-fire negotiations fail. Formerly a home for 100,000 people, this eastern city has been largely deserted by its civilian population.

''We are expecting an attack and we are ready for it,'' says Musa Alisulpanov, a local fighter. ''We have everything we need.''

But beyond the mistrust of the enemy, key problems that lie at the root of the fighting remained untouched in the talks that have been held so far and threatened to torpedo future negotiations.

The question of Dudayev's future hangs over the discussions, as does the Chechen demand that Russian troops withdraw from Chechnya before any serious talks begin on the fundamental issue of who rules the rebel republic -- whether it is part of the Russian Federation under Moscow's sway or whether it is an independent state.

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