The Chechens launch a coalition government, and Islamic law

By Maria Eismont
Source: Institute for War & Peace Reporting
Date: October, 1996


The war in Chechnya may be stalled, but so is the peace. The health of President Boris Yeltsin has sent all Russian politics into a state of limbo, including the status of the ceasefire agreement negotiated by Gen. Alexander Lebed. But on the ground, Chechen authorities are quickly moving to establish new structures and consolidate their control.

Since the ceasefire, Russian authorities have argued over the composition of the new coalition government for the republic. But on September 24, the Chechens went ahead and officially declared it, announcing several new appointments. These include Social Security Minister Shamil Beno, formerly foreign minister in the government of Djokhar Dudaev and later a virulent opponent of the late general's regime; Economic Minister Salambek Maigov, leader of the Bashlam movement, which represents the Chechen diaspora in Russia; and Strategic Resources Minister Imran Dokhshukaev, deputy to the former speaker of the Russian Duma Ruslan Khasbulatov.

Other key ministries, such as energy, appear to be reserved for supporters of Chechen independence, while the labour portfolio is held for a member of the Republican Party (the former Chechen communists), which will also get a deputy minister post. The head of state has also not been formally selected, but while Khasbulatov has angled for it, the likely victor will be Gen. Aslan Maskhadov, the Chechen chief of staff, whose authority among both Chechens and the Russian leadership was confirmed by his signing of the peace agreements with General Lebed on August 31. Meantime, the joint Chechen-Russian military commands are functioning well as the main authority on the ground, handling civilian as well as military tasks. Their main work has been to combat bandits and looters. Made up of equal numbers of Chechen fighters and federal troops, Chechens play the dominant role, thus ensuring that the commands are not seen as a Russian presence. The Russian soldiers are a little uncomfortable driving around the city in armoured vehicles accompanied by Chechen fighters with green flags, which for a long time symbolised Russia's enemy, fluttering overhead. Yet the federal soldiers appreciate the Chechens' methods. "We should leave Chechnya," says one Russian soldier. "The rebels themselves are bringing order here-they are better at it." At a spring which rises at the edge of Grozny, one of the few places where local inhabitants can fetch water, two men in camouflage uniforms climb out of a large military lorry. The younger, a junior Russian officer, gets a large hose and starts to fill canisters with water, while the older, a Chechen, sits on one side smoking and giving instructions. "Let them do some work," says the Chechen. "It's better to fetch water than to fight." The Russian only nods in agreement, content to be alive and out of danger. Indeed, the more senior Chechen fighters serve to protect the federal troops when they pass through rebel strongholds. Chechen administrative structures are also being formed, demonstrating the differences of a future Chechen-governed republic from the federal judicial and other norms. On September 12, Zelimkhan Yandarbiev, the Chechen leader, proclaimed a new criminal code based on the Islamic Sharia law. The attempt to establish an Islamic state stretches back to Dudaev's original pronouncements in 1991. But in a society which has not been very religious, Islamic codes established themselves during the war largely as a process of distinguishing Chechen-held territory. Sharia judicial and punishment proceedings appeared more theatrical than threatening.

Yet since the cease-fire, Sharia courts have been used more widely, and penalties such as whipping carried out more firmly. The fighters have declared an implacable war on looting (as well as on vodka), declaring that all looters, regardless of age, sex or nationality, would be shot on sight. Refugees returning to their homes have been surprised to find their property untouched. However, the new criminal code has already run into opposition from many Chechen leaders and field commanders, including, according to some reports, Chief of Staff Maskhadov. Russian leaders have also expressed concern, and the matter has formed part of the talks with General Lebed, suggesting the new legislation will be changed or heavily amended in the near future.

The formal Chechen opposition, however, has been relatively quiet. After Grozny fell to Chechen fighters in August this year, Urus-Martan, a traditional centre for the anti-Dudaev opposition, became the refuge of the supporters of the forces loyal to the Moscow-backed Doku Zavgaev. Days after withdrawal of the Russian forces, Chechen rebel units entered and took control of Urus-Martan district. They left untouched the local administrative building, where their Chechen opponents were holed up, and took no reprisals. Instead, they began negotiations and made a verbal agreement that they would not attack the Zavgaevites. Many members of the pro-Russian administration have agreed to join the fighters, explaining that Russia had let them down. "By its actions, Russia has united the people on one side," they said. "Now it can destroy us completely, but we will no longer fight against each other." The mood is completely different in the historically pro-Russian Nadterechny district of northwest Chechnya. Authorities there have completely refused to join or even negotiate with the Chechen fighters. Unlike their colleagues in Urus-Martan, the local police are beginning to form a militia force. They say they are not preparing to attack the Chechen separatists, but are organising themselves and securing the arms to resist any separatist attempt to establish control over the Nadterechny district. The exact strength of their units remains a closely-guarded secret, as does the source of their weaponry, although this is not hard to guess: the Russian Army.

Yandarbiev's intelligence service believes that Moscow is again trying to put into effect the plan that failed in 1994: to arm pro-Russian Chechens to overthrow the separatist government. At present, Russian Interior Ministry troops remain deployed in Nadterechny and the neighbouring Naursky district, joined by several units of federal forces withdrawn from Grozny and the mountainous districts of southern Chechnya.

Maria Eismont is a journalist covering the Chechen conflict for the Moscow daily newspaper Segodnya.


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