Few Puppets Fit Moscow's Strings In Chechnya

IN a dusty room furnished only with the decrepit armchair in which he was sitting and the scratched desk on which stood an ancient typewriter, an old man pecked out a letter with two fingers here one recent afternoon, puzzling out the spelling under his breath.

He was writing to Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin (but had to ask visiting journalists where Mr. Chernomyrdin worked), pleading with him to rein in rampaging Russian soldiers in Chechnya. But he didn't hold out much hope of a reply.

Welcome to the headquarters of the Government of National Revival (GNR), due to take over in Chechnya when rebel President Dzhokhar Dudayev has been defeated, if Moscow gets its way.

Even by the sorry standards of puppet governments, the pseudo-administration working out of this small town in northwest Chechnya is unfortunate. Not only do most Chechens see Moscow's local allies as traitors, but Russian authorities do not fully trust them either.

``We shouldn't give real power to the transitional government,'' says one senior Russian Army officer close to the Chechnya operation. ``If the people here are allowed to take charge, they will soon move to a new separatism. We'd be replacing one separatist government with another.

``Moscow must crush these aspirations now, or we will be facing the same problem all over again,'' he adds.

An underwhelming power

Aside from complaining about Russian human rights abuses in Chechnya, the provisional government has done little publicly to justify such fears. Indeed, Chechen officials find it hard to assert any authority at all.

When GNR officials demanded that Russian Interior Ministry troops ask their permission before taking over buildings in Grozny, for example, they were brushed off with scorn.

And when the deputy chief of the GNR's military went to visit a Russian general late last month, he could not even pass a Russian checkpoint, said a colleague who identified himself only as Lt. Col. Ruslan. He was forced to spend three hours lying in the mud before handing over his weapon and money and going home.

Nor has Moscow shown much more respect for the GNR's political advice. When he was named prime minister of the new ``government'' last December, Salambek Khajiyev said he had ``insisted that the military should immediately stop the shelling of Grozny.''

Since then, the Russian Army has flattened the Chechen capital.

Speaking to reporters Feb. 20, Mr. Khajiyev described his relations with Moscow as ``friendly and complex ... we have to cope with complex problems, lots of interests clash.''

Khajiyev, a minister for oil processing in the last Soviet government, is head of a Chechen political movement, Daimokh (motherland), which disappeared after a crackdown by Chechen leader Dudayev in June 1993.

Parentage counts

His support in Chechnya is somewhat undermined, local people say, since he is not actually Chechen by birth. His forebears came from Dagestan, a neighboring republic.

His lieutenants do not enjoy wide popular support either, and his top security aide, Ruslan Labazanov, is a convicted murderer.

But Khajiyev makes no pretensions to legitimacy. ``All the authorities that now exist in Chechnya are illegitimate, including our government,'' he said Feb. 20. ``It would be ludicrous to say the opposite.''

Within six to 18 months, he said, the authorities hope to be able to hold elections in Chechnya. In the meantime, he must restore water, electricity, gas, and food to battered Grozny.

But Khajiyev complained that he is not getting any help from other prominent Chechens, such as Ruslan Khasbulatov, the former Russian parliament Speaker, who has not answered an appeal to oversee a recovery program.

Also waiting in the wings in Moscow is Doku Zavgayev, the former first secretary of the Communist Party in Chechnya, the man whom Dudayev overthrew in 1991.

Leading members of the Security Council in Moscow, which has been setting Russia's Chechnya policy, have suggested that the former Supreme Soviet in Chechnya is the only legitimate authority in the republic.

That Moscow appears to be resorting to the old Communist guard to build a new Chechnya illustrates the paucity of its choices.

``The men that Moscow are backing are just the Communists whom Dudayev threw out,'' says Macksharip Chardayev, a Dudayev supporter. ``Of course they oppose him.''

The senior Russian Army officer is not optimistic. ``The real aim of the people in the Government of National Revival is to set themselves up in power and hang onto it,'' he says. ``Or they are trying to position themselves to steal the reconstruction money that will be coming from Russia.

``There are no good choices for Moscow among the Chechen leaders,'' he adds.

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