By Bruce Jacobs and Aurora Gallego
The Russian republic of Ingushetia, bordering breakaway Chechnya, has received tens of thousands of Chechens fleeing Russian bombs in recent weeks. Ingush President Ruslan Aushev has called for mediation between Moscow and Grozny, to no avail. Over the weekend, he sat down for an interview in his office with a small group of journalists, including Savik Shuster of RFE/RL's Russian Service.
Prague, 26 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Ingush President Ruslan Aushev is frustrated -- with the influx of displaced Chechens, with Chechen militants, and above all with the Russian government. Russia's military offensive against Chechnya has caused a humanitarian crisis in Ingushetia. One hundred thousand Russian troops are taking part in what Russia calls a fight against terrorism. The soldiers pass through President Aushev's republic on their way to battle, and refugees flood across his borders as they flee the fighting.
Aushev says the war has escalated to the point where a major attack on the Chechen capital is inevitable.
"Some say yes, some say no. But if they don't decide to do it, how are they going to answer the questions they asked in front of their people themselves? They said their goal is to totally clean out the terrorists from Grozny, so they can't avoid attacking."
Aushev tried repeatedly but unsuccessfully to broker a dialogue between Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov and Russian leaders. Aushev says Russia has missed many opportunities for negotiating.
"Maskhadov insistently asked to meet the Russian president, and each time, this meeting was postponed. Why did that happen? The explanation was that this meeting was being prepared and I understand that you should prepare yourself carefully and take your time if it's a meeting with (U.S.) President (Bill) Clinton or another important politician. But what kind of preparation do you need to meet the president of the Chechen Republic? A lot of questions had already been resolved."
One of the chief justifications for the Russian military onslaught on Chechnya is the Russian allegation that the Chechen-led militants who invaded Dagestan in August were responsible for apartment bombings in Moscow that killed some 300 people. The Russian government says the Chechen militants are being funded by outside powers that support terrorism. And the Russian press has run allegations that Russian power brokers are involved with the Chechens.
Aushev says he gives some credibility to reports that two of Chechnya's top military commanders, Shamil Basayev and Salman Raduyev, are being manipulated by outside forces.
"If you look at the Chechen opposition today, the opposition to Maskhadov, all those who we know, Basayev, Raduyev and the others. What do they care about Maskhadov? They don't care at all about Maskhadov. I don't know how, but they are connected to some outside powers, internationally, but also in Russia. Internationally for sure, but also with Russia, there is a lot of talking about it now. It is possible that they are just being told what to do. And what else can they do? The only thing they are able to do is fight."
Many analysts say that recent Russian bombings of the market square in Grozny and of villages is causing the Chechen people to rally behind a war with Moscow that they would not otherwise have supported. Aushev says he does not believe the Chechen people necessarily support the actions of their field commanders.
"We should make the Chechen people our allies in the fight against terrorism. Do you think they like what happened in Dagestan? I'm positive that 99 percent of the population is against what happened in Dagestan. Why did Basayev have to go there? Only history will tell us, I think, who manipulated him."
The president of Ingushetia has strong advice for the Russian government, which he says is acting aggressively and without interest in any outside opinions.
"Don't continue that way. We are a democratic country. We shouldn't think as an empire. This imperial thinking is an obstacle to politics in the Caucasus. It is necessary to talk to people with respect, with openness and sticking to principles. [Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin] should say to Comrade Maskhadov, 'You want independence? Yes you do. But I can't give it to you now, because I will never be elected president and I want to be the president of the Russian Federation. Let's look for a compromise together.' So they should meet somewhere in the mountains and find this compromise."
Even as Aushev spoke, and in the days since, the chances for compromise appear to have receded further. Russian troops have moved in toward Grozny. Chechen commanders say it looks like Russian forces are planning to settle in on the outskirts of Grozny's airport.