Chechnya & the bear's long shadow
By Thomas Goltz
Abstract: Chechnya is continuing to plan for a Jan 1997 election to choose a new leader in spite of the war damage and the lack of international monitors. Many Chechens believe that the US shares some responsibility for the death of their previous leader, Dzhokhar Dudayev.
When the citizens of the breakaway republic of Chechnya go to the polls January 27, they will be choosing a new leader under the long shadow of a war with Russia, which, while won on the battlefield, may be lost at the ballot box.
Ravaged from one end of the country to the other by the Russian Army in what will likely go down in the history books as the most brutal war of the late twentieth century, Chechnya has been depopulated and thoroughly destroyed. An estimated 40,000 to 60,000 were killed during the course of the twenty-one-month conflict; almost half the population became internal refugees. Grozny, the shattered capital, is often compared to Berlin, circa May 1945. Although the last of the 40,000 Russian soldiers who invaded Chechnya have now withdrawn, there is a palpable fear of dark forces at work in the recently liberated land, determined to wreak vengeance on the plucky little nation that managed to stare down the Russian bear.
Indeed, it is amazing that the Chechens have insisted on going ahead with the elections at all, given the desperate circumstances in their country. The question that remains unanswered is what difference "democratic legitimacy" will ultimately make for the little country that has few friends to speak of and will probably not be recognized by any outside state for a long time.
"These elections are essential to re-establish law and order in Chechnya and to give state power democratic legitimacy," says Grozny-based Tim Guldimann of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which is the only known foreign organization determined to observe the polls. "The people here are working hard to insure that they go ahead properly. They want them to succeed."
Even though there won't be many international monitors around, most seasoned observers of Chechnya think the elections will probably be the most legitimate expression of a people's choice anywhere in the former Soviet Union. The reason is simple: The Chechens are true believers in choice.
There are sixteen registered candidates for the office of President of Ichkiria, as the Chechens call their mini-state (they call themselves Noxchi; "Chechen" is merely the name of the first village reputedly stumbled upon by the Russians in the area some 300 years ago). One opinion poll published in a Moscow newspaper (polls? there is hardly a door left standing in the country to be knocked on, and barely a working telephone in the land!) suggests that Aslan Maskhadov, the chief of staff of the Chechen guerrilla forces that humbled the Russian Army, is the front-runner and the choice of some 65 percent of the electorate. Coming in second with 17 percent is former information minister Movladi Udugov, who is said to have the best-organized campaign, having gone so far as to publish leaflets detailing his program, which includes the creation of a market economy. Sharing third place with 8 percent apiece are Shamil Basayev, the charismatic field commander whose exploits have earned him the distinction of being the Most Wanted Man in Russia, and current acting head of state Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, a poet and nationalist theoretician who worries many Russians with his vision of Chechnya as a fundamentalist Islamic state.
For what its worth, the candidate favored by Moscow is Maskhadov, regarded as being the most rational man in the race, mainly because it was he who negotiated the cease-fire that spared thousands of Russian soldiers and who signed last summer's peace agreement with Russia's then -- security boss Aleksandr Lebed, which calls for a moratorium on complete independence for five years. The candidate least favored by Moscow is Basayev, who led the raid on the southern Russian city of Budyonnovsk in June 1995, when he and a handful of suicide commandos took over a hospital and held more than 1,000 hostage before successfully negotiating a return to Chechnya.
The top six candidates have asked all others to step aside for the sake of national unity (Basayev is now calling his rivals criminals); none have done so. All have called for some form of Islamic law, arguing that they owe it to Allah, as the only one who stood by them in their hour of need. All also insist that the de facto independence from Russia achieved at such an awful cost should be elevated to de jure independence, and the Republic of Ichkiria recognized as an independent state. To achieve that, whoever wins the election will need all the divine support he can get.
This was, essentially, the position of the much-maligned first president of "independent", Chechnya, Gen. Dzhokhar Dudayev, whose legacy casts a second long shadow over the current elections. Dudayev, a Soviet-era Strategic Air Command bomber pilot and then Interior Ministry General, returned to his native Chechnya at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and precipitated the conflict with Russia by declaring Chechnya to be as sovereign and independent a state as the other fifteen republics of the crumbling U.S.S.R., Including Estonia, Uzbekistan and even Russia.
"We never agreed to be part of czarist Russia or the U.S.S.R.," Dudayev told me during the course of a meeting on the fiftieth anniversary of what Chechens refer to as the "Day of Chechen Genocide," February 23, 1944 -- the day Stalin deported virtually half the population to Central Asia.
It was also the day, in 1994, when General Dudayev unveiled his army, replete with surface-to-surface missiles, and essentially threw down the gauntlet in front of the Kremlin. Ten months later, Boris Yeltsin ordered his army to invade. Twenty months later, Chechnya had become the modern David that brought down Goliath, if at an incredible cost to itself -- including the life of the Chechen leader, killed last April by a guided rocket trained in on the beam of his satellite telephone.
Ever since Dudayev's death, many have speculated that he was a victim less of the war in Chechnya than of last year's presidential election campaign in Russia proper. Horribly, it is almost universally believed in Chechnya that the United States had a hand in his assassination in order to help a floundering Boris Yeltsin end the bloody war and thus be re-elected. Fairly or unfairly, the name bandied about as the "chief enemy of the Chechen people" is none other than Russia expert and Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott.
"The matter really came to light at the time of the [anti-terrorist] Sharm al-Sheikh summit in Egypt following the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in Israel," said Dudayev confidant Eduard Khatchoukayev. "Yeltsin told Clinton that he could not be re-elected as president if the Chechen war continued -- and that the alternative to him was the Communists. He told Clinton the only way to stop the war was to cut off the snakes head -- that is, to kill Dzhokhar Dudayev. Clinton agreed, and a plan was set."
Khatchoukayev, who claims to have his information through a mixture of Russian and US. sources, contends that the United States offered to help track Dudayev by means of electronic surveillance of his InMarSat satellite telephone, which could give precise coordinates of his location. With this information, the wily Chechen could then be obliterated by a "smart bomb" sent down the telephone signal. As proof, Khatchoukayev showed me a grainy photograph that appeared in the Moscow daily Argumenti i Fakti, purporting to depict Dudayev standing next to a jeep, looking up at a targeting square of the sort CNN viewers were familiarized with during the U.S. smart-bomb assault on Iraqi targets during the Gulf War, as the bomb zoomed in on the telephone he is holding in his hand.
A former National Security Agency official explained to me how such targeting works: "VR.S. (Voice Recognition System) and G.P.S. (Ground Positing System) are how you take out radar stations during war," said the source. "The whole process should only take a few minutes, by which time you should be able to determine not only the location of the transmitting telephone but the sex, age, accent and even disposition of the person talking. If it is the person you are looking for, then you lock on with the help of a G.P.S., program your Fire and Forget missile either from the ground or from an aircraft, and send the missile back down the line and into the ear of the guy you want to take out. Read Tom Clancy for more details."
The problem with this scenario is that the Russians, even in Soviet times, have had the same capability to locate transmission signals for years and did not need any U.S. help in finding Dudayev. "The idea that we helped the Russians kill Dudayev is crazy," said Professor Stephen Blank of the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
Also, the evidence suggests that Moscow had been getting all the feed it needed about Dudayev's location for a long time, and that Dudayev knew all about it, and even used it. "The Russians had been eavesdropping on Dzhokhar for the duration of the war," the U.S. academic and Dudayev confidante Diana Roazen told me. "Full transcripts of our conversations, often an hour long, were published and distributed to some fifteen intelligence agencies interested in his thinking. Dzhokhar knew he was being monitored -- but it was his way of getting his message through to Moscow and other capitals."
At the time preceding his death, Dudayev had become much less casual on the satellite phone, Roazen says.
"He knew that the Russian war party was specifically tracking him to kill him, but he somehow knew when they managed to lock on to his signal," she says. "A couple times he even dropped the receiver in mid-sentence; when he called back a few days later it would be on a new sat-phone, because they had managed to hit the phone, but not him."
What kept Dudayev on the phone long enough to allow the Russians (and maybe the Americans) to perform the necessary pinpointing of his location?
"It ultimately makes no difference whom he was calling," said Russia specialist Paul Goble. "But one thing is clear: Dzhokhar Dudayev was somehow led to believe that he was under the temporary ideological protection of the United States, and let down his guard. To his eternal chagrin, he learned that such protection from Washington is worthless."
The question of whom he was talking to (or waiting to talk to) remains unanswered. One plausible theory, held by Goble and others, is that he was calling or waiting to speak with the Moroccan envoy who stitched together the Israeli/P.L.O talks in Norway. Still another is that he was trying to bring in a high-level U.S. delegation to Chechnya to secure peace.
The official Russian version of the identity of the man on the other end of the telephone line, in any case, is that he was Konstantin Borovoy, a Moscow biznesman and one of Dudayev's frequent interlocutors with Kremlin connections. A transcript of the alleged last conversation, in which Dudayev suggests that Borovoy change his central Moscow home to some other part of the city lest "bad things happen" to him in a crossfire, appeared in the Moscow press at the time, purportedly after having been intercepted and made available as evidence of Dudayev's demise.
Yet Borovoy told Roazen that what appeared in print had no relation with his satellite chat with Dudayev, and that their conversation did not end with a grand blast at the far end of the line. Even more problematic is the photograph that appeared in Argumenti i Fakti. According to Dudayev's widow, Alla Dudayeva, not only is the jeep depicted in the photograph not the vehicle used but the satellite dish the rocket homed in on is not on the roof of the vehicle, nor are any of the several others killed with Dudayev in the frame.
"I was there when the rocket came in," Alla told me during a recent meeting at the Chechen "mission" in Istanbul. "It was early evening, and there had been aviation flying all day. Usually, I would stay in the bunker. But that day I had made arrangements to call the Voice of America on Dzhokhar's satellite telephone and read them a poem, so I accompanied Dzhokhar and his entourage outside to an open field.
"It was foggy, which shielded us from aerial observation. Then came the sounds of high-flying planes. Dzhokhar told me not to be afraid, but I knew he was concerned about something because he said there was no time to read the poetry, and that he had a more important phone call to make to Borovoy in Moscow. I think it had something to do with Clinton's recent visit with Boris Yeltsin. I stepped away from the immediate vicinity of our transport, and then came the blast."
The discrepancy between the eyewitness account of Dudayev's death and the transcript and picture published in Moscow is disturbing for many reasons, not least because it underscores the close relationship between the Russian security services and the "independent" Moscow media, which serve as a basic source for much Western reporting on Chechnya -- and which have now managed to convince the Chechens of U.S. complicity in the death of their first president.
There is, sadly, little new in this. Prior to the war, Moscow-generated disinformation about Chechnya managed to convey a picture of a mafia den inhabited by congenital criminals who rule through fear. Over the course of the conflict, Moscow floated all manner of atrocity stories, ranging from Chechens chopping Russians to bits to pinning the murder of US. aid worker Fred Cuny on Chechen "bandits." In the aftermath of the cease-fire agreement reached last August between Aslan Maskhadov and Aleksandr Lebed, there have been almost daily reports of kidnappings and killings in Chechnya performed by "unknowns," the most awful of which was the murder in December of six foreign nationals running a Red Cross hospital. Not only did the murders result in the Red Cross -- usually the first aid organization to get into any conflict zone and the last to leave -- pulling its personnel out of Chechnya but it also caused virtually all foreign election observers to cancel their plans to monitor the polling, lest they become the next victims of what can only be labeled cold-blooded provocations.
And now, in the run-up to the elections, the daily barrage of Russian reporting emphasizes how the main candidates are viciously attacking one another and how the coalition of clans that fought the war together is about to fall apart, with the outbreak of internecine fighting imminent. Those foreign reporters who have ventured down to witness the campaign firsthand have so far reported nothing of the sort.