Russia's top negotiator with rebel Chechnya flew hastily to the Chechen capital of Grozny yesterday, as a spate of deadly bombings and shootouts just outside the breakaway region threatened to plunge it into a new cycle of violence and torpedo delicate peace talks.
Moscow has accused Chechens of two railway bomb attacks in southern Russia over the past week that killed five people. Before dawn on Tuesday, a Russian military outpost on the Chechen border came under sustained attack in the worst outbreak of fighting since hostilities officially ended last August.
Leaders on both sides are seeking to defuse the tension before it propels them into a renewal of the bloody conflict that left as many as 80,000 people dead before the Russian Army withdrew last year. The two sides are fundamentally at odds over whether Chechnya is still a part of Russia or is an independent state.
"The main task now is to prevent the situation from sliding to crisis point," said Chechnya's First Deputy Prime Minister Movladi Udugov as he welcomed Moscow's envoy, Security Council chief Ivan Rybkin, to Grozny airport for emergency talks.
"Clearly these events have made the situation much graver," warned Arkady Popov, a Chechnya specialist in Russian President Boris Yeltsin's personal think tank. "But how negative their impact will be depends on what happens next."
That would seem to depend on who set the bombs. Chechen officials say they have nothing to do with them and claim the explosions are provocations by the Russian secret services. "I categorically declare that the Chechen side did not take part in the terrorist acts on Russian territory," Chechen Vice President Vakha Arsanov told a Moscow radio station on Tuesday.
Russian Interior Minister Gen. Anatoly Kulikov, however, claimed that two captured female Chechen fighters had confessed to planting one of the bombs.
"If [Chechen President Aslan] Maskhadov does not get rid of the terrorists in his entourage, his regime will also become criminal," General Kulikov told reporters Tuesday.
BUT this was as close as Moscow has come to accusing the Chechen leadership itself of involvement in the attacks. In fact, Mr. Rybkin publicly upbraided Kulikov for seeking to undermine the negotiations with Chechnya.
Rather, Russian officials suggest, Mr. Maskhadov's government, elected in January, is unable to prevent hard-line dissidents - opposed to any negotiations with Moscow - from launching attacks on Russian soil.
Lawlessness has grown to alarming proportions in Chechnya since hostilities ended. Weapons are easy to come by but jobs are not, and crime has skyrocketed. Kidnapping Westerners and Russians for ransom has become a widespread habit. Last month, the Chechen government introduced new rules for foreign reporters, requiring them to stay only at the airport hotel and to pay for official bodyguards.
In a bid to stem the tide of crime, Maskhadov threatened this week to publicly execute kidnappers. But he has shown no such firmness against radicals such as Salman Raduyev, a guerrilla leader who has openly threatened attacks on Russian towns to mark last week's anniversary of the death of Dzhokar Dudayev, Chechnya's first president.
The recent violence illustrates the dangers that lurk in the deliberate ambiguities of last August's peace treaty, negotiated by former Russian Security Council chief Alexander Lebed.
Under that accord, the key question that provoked the war - Chechnya's demand for independence from Moscow - was left unresolved until 2001. For the past eight months, Chechen leaders have been claiming to rule a sovereign state that they call Ichkeria, while the Kremlin insists that Chechnya is merely one more republic in the Russian Federation.
Peace talks have foundered on this difference.
Moscow says it is prepared to extend much needed economic assistance to Chechnya, but only if Grozny accepts Russian jurisdiction. The Chechen side refuses to discuss economic issues until Moscow recognizes Chechnya's independence.