Chechen vs. Chechen, the sequel

As in its earlier war, Moscow turns to pro-Russia Chechens with little

History has a way of repeating itself in Russia, and that is exactly what appears to be happening in the Kremlin's latest attempt to reclaim the breakaway republic of Chechnya.

Moscow has enlisted Chechen paramilitaries to lead its assault on the great prize of Grozny, depicting them as liberators of the besieged capital.

But the tactic of backing puppets who are unpopular among most of the nationalist Chechens didn't work in the 1994-96 war. Analysts say there is no reason to believe it will succeed this time.

"The creation of this sort of [proxy] 'army' was stupid in the last war, and it is senseless now again," says Timur Muzayev, an expert on Chechnya from the Panorama think tank in Moscow.

Wrong strategy, wrong man

Mr. Muzayev and other analysts say Moscow is wrong to put its backing behind Bislan Gantamirov, the man leading the ground attack on the city that started Christmas Day. The pro-Kremlin former mayor of Grozny was only recently released from jail - he was imprisoned for embezzling state funds - and commands little respect outside his own clan. Mr. Gantamirov is an unlikely future leader for these independent mountain people, who have chafed at centrally imposed rule from Moscow for more than 150 years.

"Gantamirov is not popular in Chechnya.... He has no proper political weight to become an all-Chechnya leader," Muzayev says. And analysts say the Kremlin has ignored the basic tenet of a successful anti-insurgency fight - winning the hearts and the minds of the population.

Instead, the Russian military has relied on intense shelling that has sent a quarter of a million people running from their homes. Reports by Western observers of massacres in Russian-occupied Chechen towns further alienated a populace already hostile toward Moscow. On Tuesday, Russian President Boris Yeltsin praised the Army for its "faultless" conduct.

Muzayev hears echoes of the previous war, which ended in the humiliating retreat of Russian troops. Last time around, the Kremlin backed two men, Umar Avturkhanov and Salambek Khadgiyev, who were seen by many Chechens as lackeys of the federal government.

The shaky truce that ended the conflict fell apart after Chechen rebels invaded neighboring Dagestan in August. A series of apartment bombings that killed 300 people across Russia provided additional pretext for the latest campaign. Russia's federal security service yesterday announced the arrest of eight people in connection with the blasts. A security official said nine suspects are still at large. At least three are believed to be in Chechnya.

Militarily, Gantamirov and his 800 allegedly all-Chechen fighters are facing fierce resistance from separatist Chechens as they lead the assault on Grozny. Gantamirov's paramilitaries are serving as an advance force, backed by Russian special forces, air support, and artillery. Russian generals say progress has been slowed by land mines, oil fires, and strong defenses by the estimated 5,000 to 10,000 separatists. However, they vow to take the city within days.

Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev said federal troops expected to have full control of a key suburb by the end of the day yesterday. "In my opinion, the Chechnya operation, at least its active phase, is nearing completion," he said. The latest figures from the Russian military show that more than 90 percent of the Chechen population is now living in Russian-controlled areas and that 122 out of 199 Chechen villages are held by Russians, as are half of the republic's 14 territorial districts.

Military analysts do not doubt that Russian forces will soon march into Grozny, but they expect ultimate control of the city and its surroundings will be elusive. Even if Russian troops plant the federation's flag in the center of town, there will be lingering pockets of resistance by snipers who can easily melt into the civilian population, analysts forecast.

A wider question is, presuming that political negotiations begin in earnest on a settlement, whom will the Kremlin talk with about Chechnya's future?

Since the last war, the republic has disintegrated into lawlessness, economic collapse, and rivalry among the many warlords and clans. The two main leaders who have emerged are democratically elected Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov, with whom Russia negotiated peace after the last war, and Shamil Basayev, the rebel leader at the forefront of the Dagestan foray.

Although Mr. Basayev commands support among many Islamic militants, a large number of ordinary Chechens blame him and other warlords for the anarchy and kidnappings that have swept the republic in the past few years. Many Chechens simply want to break free from Moscow's yoke and do not embrace the militants' vision of a wider Islamic state in the Caucasus.

The Kremlin refuses to negotiate with Basayev and seems to prefer the more moderate Mr. Maskhadov. Analysts say that the Chechen president, however, lacks political weight among many warlords and has had problems getting them to respect his authority.

Contact, for refugees' sake

Although Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has publicly rejected Maskhadov's legitimacy, representatives of the two camps have held talks in recent days on the safe exit of thousands of civilians trapped in Grozny.

"Negotiations between Russia and Chechnya were never interrupted and are going on now. It is easy to continue them in this era of cell phones," says Alexander Rozhdestvensky, deputy director of the Complex Social Research Institute, an independent research center in St. Petersburg.

The Russian media have been rife with speculation that the two sides had begun discussing a formula for postwar governance, but this has not been confirmed by either party.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.