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Russia: Controlling Chechnya Will Not Be So Easy

  • Sophie Lambroschini

Russian forces appear to be advancing with remarkable ease in Chechnya and now claim to control dozens of villages. However, RFE/RL correspondents in the region report that divisions within Chechen society, as well as Moscow's previous failures to establish loyal local governments, raise doubts about Russia's chances for success.

Moscow, 22 November 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The way Russian officials tell it, establishing control in Chechnya is simply a matter of setting up new authorities loyal to Moscow. Already, there is talk of moving the capital from Grozny to Gudermes, which is under Russian control.

But RFE/RL correspondents in the region report that complex rifts running through Chechen society make the Russian task of gaining effective control daunting. They also report that the accumulated hatred, humiliation, and greed in Chechnya may prove to be just as resistant to Russian order as Chechen guns have been.

The Russian generals are boasting of successes. Last week, they took over the village of Achkhoi-Martan in the West. Russian officials have been repeating for several days now that the military is about to capture Bamut, a southern separatist stronghold in the mountains. They also express confidence about capturing Urus-Martan, a key goal in the effort to isolate Grozny.

As for Grozny itself, the Russian military claims to have encircled 80 percent of the capital. Conditions in the city are reportedly grim, as most people able to flee have done so. Refugees interviewed locally by RFE/RL say that when they left Grozny, the poor, the elderly, and sick had been reduced to eating stray dogs.

The Russian military is following a pattern in captured villages. First, Russian forces search for any remaining rebel fighters. Then the generals claim to appoint local administrative heads to assist them in re-establishing order. They announce the imposition of a curfew and the organizing of humanitarian aid.

However, as RFE/RL correspondent Oleg Kusov recently reported from western Chechnya, breaking the resistance and taking over a village -- with or without fighting -- does not mean the end of the battle for control. He reports that in the northern plains of Chechnya, traditionally more tolerant of Moscow, Russian forces are slowly setting up local administrations. But in the western part of the republic they are up against local distrust and fear.

Kusov explains that although some inhabitants who fled the fighting have been back in their villages for weeks, order still has not been restored. That is particularly true among people whose past experience has taught them to distrust both the Russians and the rebels.

The locals in the village of Selnovodsk still remember their last attempt at cooperating with the Russians in 1995, under Doku Zavgayev's Moscow-loyal government and parliament. The head of the village, Idris Elbukayev, told RFE/RL how divisions between pro-Russian Chechens and rebels ended in violence and chaos.

He says that under Zavgayev, people were fighting for a seat in parliament. He says Russia was funneling money over to Zavgayev at the time and even the lowest civil servant function meant a chance to steal some of the money. But when the war ended and the rebels came back to their homes, they demanded the money for themselves. Elbukayev says that Zavgayev's people were being terrorized, their belongings confiscated, their families blackmailed, even kidnapped. But he says Russian authorities did not help the Chechens who had sided with them.

Elbukayev says that pro-Moscow Chechens now remember that Moscow earlier abandoned them and fear a repetition -- or worse. He says that this time the rebels have become even tougher and would not think twice about killing someone who collaborated with the Russians.

RFE/RL's Andrei Babitsky reports that the Chechen rebels are just as divided as the civilians. He covered the previous war and is now reporting from both Chechnya and Ingushetia.

In one of his recent reports, Babitsky observed that rival groups of Chechen fighters are sometimes so divided by mutual hatred and distrust that they will leave their compatriots out to die under Russian shells rather than provide cover.

Khavazh, a 25-year-old Chechen fighter and a veteran of the previous war, told Babitsky that deceit by another group of his fellow fighters could have cost him his life. Khavazh said that after his group took up positions on the territory of another Chechen group, Russian forces began shelling the area. While the local fighters hid behind makeshift protection, they refused to allow Khavazh's group to do the same.

The main dividing line between fighters, explains Babitsky, separates those who call themselves "ordinary resisters" and the self-proclaimed Islamic warriors usually characterized as "Wahhabis." Chechens interviewed by Babitsky say that the Wahhabis have both money and weapons, and constitute a privileged caste of fighters. Russian officials say the Chechens are being supplied with weapons by terrorist or fundamentalist groups. But many Chechens -- who took up arms more out of resistance against the Russians than in the name of Islamic ideals -- have reportedly not benefited from any contraband aid.

Khavazh says his detachment was lying on the Sunzha heights overlooking Grozny for several days, waiting to attack advancing Russian troops. But in the end it was not Russian artillery fire that made them flee but simply hunger. Khavazh and his men ran out of food, money, and ammunition. Later, he says it took his men 10 days to walk 200 kilometers into the mountains because they did not have the means to buy horses.

Khavazh says he hates the Wahhabis as much as he hates the Russians. He claims that as soon as the war against the Russians is won, the Chechens will drive the Wahhabis out. Khavazh says they are the ones responsible for the current Russian military campaign because of their incursions into Dagestan in August, incursions that were begun with the announced intention of establishing an Islamic state in the neighboring republic.

On this final point, at least, Khavazh and other Chechens seem to be in agreement with Russian authorities.