Where will war leave Chechnya?

Yesterday, Russia bombed Grozny, and ground troops inched closer to the capital

Russian troops continued their bomb and blockade mission on the Chechen capital of Grozny yesterday. And military generals vowed to fight to a full victory.

But at the same time, highly placed Russian doves warn the military campaign could undermine an eventual political settlement with the rebel republic that claimed its independence from Russia in 1991.

"Russia's political strategy should be to seek normalization of relations with Chechnya, and military action should be of much less importance," says Ramazan Abdulatipov, a Russian minister without portfolio whose main area of responsibility is nationalities' policy. "It is necessary to carry on negotiations and keep our contacts [with Chechen leaders]. The political process must not be stopped."

Over the past month Russia has invaded and occupied over a third of Chechnya, and is presently laying siege to its capital. Military leaders say the operation is going well and have even begun to talk of "restoring constitutional order" throughout the secessionist state's territory. Chechnya is a "nest of bandits and terrorists" with no effective or legitimate authority, they say, and hence there's no point to negotiations.

But Mr. Abdulatipov, a probable key Russian player in any future peace talks, says he favors the limited military goal of crushing Chechnya's lawless warlords, who are accused by Moscow of sowing terror and discord beyond the republic's borders.

But like other top officials and ethnic policy experts, he seems dismayed that the generals - backed by a handful of hawkish political leaders - are again flirting with victory in Chechnya.

"Moscow has to realize that it is impossible to prevail in a drawn-out guerrilla war in Chechnya," says Emil Pain, director of the independent Center for Ethnic, Political, and Regional Studies in Moscow and a former adviser to President Boris Yeltsin. "I am very much afraid that Russia will forget the hard-learned lessons of the recent past and go all-out for a military solution. But Chechnya could only be conquered at the price of oceans of blood, and even then it's doubtful."

Chechnya, a region of 1.5 million Muslims in the Caucasus, declared its independence as the Soviet Union was breaking up in late 1991. But unlike "union republics" of comparable size and with similar histories of Russian conquest and oppression that won freedom at that time - like Estonia - Chechnya was not permitted to secede. Moscow tolerated its quasi-independence for a while, but in 1994 launched a full-scale invasion.

The bitter two-year war that followed left an estimated 80,000 people, mostly civilians, dead and ended in humiliating defeat for Russian forces.

The Khasavyurt Accords, signed in August 1996, gave Chechnya de facto self-government, but left its legal status in limbo. In postwar presidential elections, Chechens voted overwhelmingly for former top military commander Aslan Maskhadov.

But the isolated and unstable republic has since seemed incapable of building an effective government. "The rebels have proved they can defeat the federal army, but they are absolutely unable to solve Chechnya's economic problems," Abdulatipov says.

Last summer several thousand guerrillas led by Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev invaded the neighboring Caucasus republic of Dagestan, pledging to drive the Russians out and create an Islamic superstate in the North Caucasus. In September, a series of apartment bombs killed nearly 300 people in Russia. Moscow has charged - but not proved - the bombings were the work of Mr. Basayev's men.

Public opinion in Russia demanded action, and newly appointed Prime Minister Vladimir Putin responded.

He denounced the Khasavyurt Accords, and said the only Chechen government Moscow recognizes is a legislature elected under Russian occupation in 1996. Russian forces invaded Chechnya early this month. Rebuffing peace overtures from Mr. Maskhadov, they occupied the northern third of the republic and carried out a sweeping aerial bombardment of Chechen infrastructure and, independent observers say, savagely pounded civilian centers as well. An estimated 170,000 Chechen refugees have fled to neighboring Ingushetia.

The original plan announced by Mr. Putin was to create a "buffer zone" in north Chechnya to hem in terrorists and provide a haven for Chechen refugees who wish to live under Russian rule.

But in the past two weeks Russian forces have pushed beyond their self-declared zone, and Russian generals have suggested they might storm the Chechen capital - an operation that cost thousands of lives in the previous conflict, and could do so again.

"Hatred between Russians and Chechens will only increase if events follow the pattern of the 1994-96 war," says Alexander Makhamedov, chief of the North Caucasus department in the Russian Ministry of Federal Affairs.

A key problem is that Putin has boxed Russia into a corner by declaring Maskhadov illegitimate. "Maskhadov may have been elected outside Russian law, but there is no doubt he was elected by the people," says Ibrahim Suleimeinov, a pro-Moscow Chechen general and member of the Duma and former military governor of Grozny under Russian occupation.

Mr. Suleimeinov, who is a likely key player in any future Russian-installed Chechen government, is deeply troubled by the civilian casualties. A Russian rocket attack on Grozny killed 140 people in a market last week, and bombings of Chechen villages have left dozens more dead in recent days.

"Chechens want to know if the federal authorities are really serious about providing real constitutional order for them this time," he says. "Or will they just repeat their past mistakes?"

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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