The Chechens take over

From: "The Economist"


CHECHNYA is almost fully under the control of Chechens who want complete independence. The flag that flies practically everywhere is green, white and red, with a motif of a wolf and a full moon-the banner of Ichkeria, as the separatists prefer to call their fledgling country.

Russian nationalists, mainly in the army and the Duma (Russia's lower house of parliament), still want to turn things round. It is probably too late. Some 20,000 Russian troops have left. Not many more than half that number probably now remain, cooped up in two airfield bases outside Grozny, the capital. Russian military checkpoints have virtually disappeared. Having lost 10,000 or more servicemen (no reliable official figure exists) in battle, Russia would have to start the war all over again-with no greater reason for thinking it could prevail a second time round. Ivan Rybkin, the steady ex- Communist "apparatchik" and former speaker of the Duma who recently took over as national security adviser and chief negotiator over Chechnya from Alexander Lebed, the architect of the current fragile peace, has already acknowledged as much. Nowadays the men who only recently were condemned in Moscow as "bandits" and "terrorists" are sitting in offices in Grozny or patrolling the streets outside. The coalition government, cobbled together thanks to Mr Lebed, contains but a handful of "neutral" Chechens. Doku Zavgaev, Chechnya's Russian-appointed leader, has faded into anonymity in Moscow.

Silently and efficiently, the rebels have established control. There is no formal civil administration. Chechnya's 200 or so small towns and villages more or less run themselves. In one or two places, the more zealous rebels have set up Muslim Sharia courts. Roads link Chechnya to the east, west and north, though you can reach Georgia only by trekking south across the mountains. The rebels' biggest logistical grouse is that they have no air link of their own: that is all the Russians still control.

Except for the heaps of rubble and the lines of fresh graves in the cemeteries, it is as though Chechnya had all but returned to the days of late 1991. That was when General Dzhokhar Dudayev (who was killed in April, probably by a Russian missile) declared independence, with the Soviet Union writhing in its death-throes and the Kremlin powerless to prevent him. But now there is another, more crucial, difference. Aslan Maskhadov, the man effectively in charge of the new Chechnya and prime minister of a transitional government formed a fortnight ago, is far more reasonable than Mr Dudayev was. If elections provisionally set for January come off, he looks likely to become president. Such Chechen opposition as exists has for the moment been sidelined.

Although both Messrs Maskhadov and Dudayev learned their fighting skills in the Soviet armed forces (Dudayev as a general in the air force, Maskhadov as a colonel in the artillery), the new man has a lot more going for him. A masterly guerrilla operator, he is also much cooler-headed, more pragmatic, and (unlike Mr Dudayev) shrewd about the politics of Moscow. As for the rebels' current president, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, who was Mr Dudayev's vice- president and succeeded him in April, he is ambitious but lacks Mr Maskhadov's stature. Though a well-known poet and veteran nationalist, if he were to hold on to the presidency, the peace could founder. Mr Maskhadov's main asset is his control of the fighters.

Powerful people in Moscow, most notably the interior minister, Anatoly Kulikov, are still trying to undermine the peace. Russia's ailing president, Boris Yeltsin, has hardly been its most ardent upholder. All the more reason why the canny Mr Maskhadov should stay in control at the Chechen end. The Russians know they can do business with him. If they do want to keep the peace, they need someone of Mr Maskhadov's authority to settle two tricky problems that are still outstanding.

The first is over the two Russian brigades still holed up at their two airports outside Grozny. The Russians say they have been "permanently deployed" by presidential decree and are not subject to the overall accord to pull Russian troops out. The Chechens say they will not let any Russian forces stay on Chechen soil. But if the two brigades do leave, that would enrage nationalist opponents of the peace plan in Moscow, who would try to whip up a furore against such "total surrender to the bandits". If, on the other hand, the troops did stay, assorted Chechens might be unable to resist the temptation to fire grenades and rockets at them.

The second tricky issue concerns the republic's constitutional status. Russian politicians of all stripes still say they cannot even contemplate meeting the rebels' demand for outright independence. On this, Mr Maskhadov's instincts may well prompt him to play for time. The accord he signed with Mr Lebed says that the republic's eventual status will be decided in five years' time. In public, Mr Maskhadov may fulminate against the brigades while tacitly accepting their lingering presence. Over Chechnya's status he may drag his feet until peace is more thoroughly entrenched. Besides, the place is utterly devastated. Money to start repairing it, especially if the damaged trans-Chechnya oil pipeline from Baku on the Caspian Sea to Novorossiisk on the Black Sea is re-opened, is more likely at this stage to come from Russia than from anywhere else.


© 2007 Chechen Republic Online