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Russia: Politicians Fine-Tune Their Chechnya Strategy

  • Matt Frost

Prague, 1 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- With exactly 18 months to go before Russia and the breakaway republic of Chechnya are due to reach an accord on the legal status of their bilateral relations, Russian politicians are fine-tuning their Chechnen policies against a backdrop of escalating violence.

After a war, which cost an estimated 50,000 to 80,000 mostly civilian casualties, the so-called "Khasavurt Agreement" was signed in August 1996 by then Security Council secretary Aleksandr Lebed and then Chechen Chief of Staff Aslan Maskahdov. It set the end of 2001 as the deadline for deciding the status of future relations between Moscow and Grozny.

But no progress has been made between the parties on the future status of Chechnya. Authorities in Grozny consider Chechnya independent, while Moscow still considers it part of the Russian Federation. No country has formally recognized Chechen independence.

As the deadline for a final accord on the status of the republic draws nearer --and particularly if the violence in the region continues to escalate-- the Chechnya question will inevitably feature higher in the Russian political scene. Russian parliamentary and presidential elections are only six and 12 months away, respectively.

RFE/RL's veteran Chechnya correspondent Andrey Babitsky says that a legal and constitutional resolution of independence for the republic is far-off:

"It depends on the level of tension in the region. I think that if the elections were to take place now, the question of Chechnya would not play a decisive role, because the electorate is not so interested in the issue. But if the Chechens succeeded in starting a [civil] war in [neighboring] Dagestan, then the question of Chechnya would be one of the most decisive in the upcoming elections."

Meanwhile, the violence in Chechnya continues unabated. A top Russian parliamentary official said yesterday that 700 people have been kidnapped in Chechnya so far this year. Vladimir Zorin, chairman of the lower house of parliament's Nationalities Policy Committee, said that kidnapping had become endemic to a region that was rapidly descending into chaos.

Last week, Russian Prime Minister Sergey Stepashin traveled to the North Caucasus area and voiced concern over the worsening security situation in the republics bordering Chechnya. Earlier this week, a bomb explosion injured several people in the southern Russian city of Vladikavkaz --the latest incident in a series of violent clashes between competing forces in the region.

More than 50 people were killed in the North Ossetian capital when a bomb exploded in a market in Vladikavkaz last March. This incident, plus a spate of border clashes between various armed groupings on the Chechen-Dagestan and Chechen-Stavropol administrative borders, prompted Moscow to tighten border controls. That led some commentators to write that Moscow intends to impose a cordon sanitaire around the troublesome republic.

Indeed, some nationalist politicians --most prominent among them Moscow mayor and presidential hopeful Yury Luzhkov-- are in favor of the complete segregation of Chechnya from the Russian Federation, without however conceding any of the benefits of full independence and without awarding any war reparations which the ruined republic desperately needs to rebuild its shattered infrastructure.

RFE/RL's Babitsky says that Luzhkov is merely adopting a pragmatist approach to the problem in the knowledge that Moscow has little influence on Chechen affairs but needs to do as much as possible to prevent the violence spilling over into neighboring Russian republics.

"He [Luzhkov] understands perfectly well that the federal center has virtually no levers of influence to control the situation in Chechnya; and the situation is very dangerous because of the risk of even greater destabilization of the whole of the North Caucasus; it's clear that the Chechens will try and stir up the situation especially in Dagestan: therefore Luzhkov is not so much in favor of independence for Chechnya but for its isolation--in order to decrease its influence on neighboring republics to the utmost"

While the Chechnya issue provides Russian politicians with opportunities to parade their nationalist credentials in the run-up the parliamentary and presidential elections, it also carries with it significant political risk. Only this past week-end, one of the major architects of Moscow's attempt to impose a military solution to the problem --former Russian defense minister Pavel Grachev, who infamously boasted that he could take Grozny in two hours-- said that he considered the war a mistake, This echoed Russian president Boris Yeltsin, who has called the invasion of Chechnya the greatest misjudgment of his presidency.

General Alexander Lebed -- a presidential candidate in the 1996 elections and a front-runner for next year's elections -- arguably achieved his only serious policy success in brokering the Khasavurt Agreement. This took place shortly after Lebed was appointed Security Council secretary after the 1996 presidential elections.

But Lebed's success was the result of considerable tact and flexibility in recognizing that Moscow needed a face-saving exit strategy from a conflict it had ill-advisedly entered. It had nothing to do with current attempts to play the nationalist card and brow-beat Chechnya's leaders into submission.

The Russian Communist Party is maintaining its policy of not acquiescing to any secession under any circumstances. The party line is for a strong centralist state, and it does not want formally to grant Chechen independence for fear of establishing a precedent to be followed by other separatist-inclined parts of the federation.

"They [the communists] are going to insist on Chechnya remaining part of the Russian federation, because for them the concept of the indivisibility of Russia is very important."

The Ultra-nationalist camp of the Liberal Democratic party led by Vladimir Zhirinovsky has proposed a surprisingly moderate interim solution to the status of Chechnya until the current agreement expires at the end of 2001. Zhirinovsky proposes turning Chechnya into a national enclave with the status of a self-governing territory within the Russian Federation, but without federal laws having any jurisdiction. The Russian Federation would provide humanitarian aid, but not subsidies out of the federal budget. Furthermore, Chechnya would still have to negotiate its independence with federal authorities after an enclave-wide referendum.

The State Duma (lower house) rejected Zhirinovsky's proposal in May of this year as incompatible with the Russian constitution. It is unlikely that the plan would have met with much enthusiasm from the Chechen leadership, which interprets the May 1997 Russian-Chechen agreement as an effective recognition of Chechnya's independence.

Still, as RFE/RL's Newsline analyst Liz Fuller points out, at least Zhirinovsky's draft law has the merit of imposing a temporary legal framework on an existing ambiguous situation, while leaving all options open for a permanent solution to the conflict.