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Chechnya: New Governor General Has Tough Task

  • Sophie Lambroschini

One of Russian President Vladimir Putin's first steps in his plan to submit Russia's independent-minded regions to more control, was to name his representatives to head seven new giant administrative districts. His appointee to the North Caucasus district is Viktor Kazantsev, the 54-year-old general who was in charge of military operations in Chechnya and the surrounding region. He must now bring rule of law to a region in which he waged a bloody, and unfinished, war. RFE/RL correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports.

Moscow, 2 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- As Putin's governor general of the North Caucasus, Viktor Kazantsev will be responsible for the Russian regions from the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea. Within that space, administering Chechnya is undoubtedly the biggest challenge.

Chechens will be placed, at least to some extent, under the authority of a man who commanded the Russian troops responsible for bombing their villages. Human Rights Watch, which has gathered detailed testimony from Chechen survivors, says Russian troops were also responsible for widespread looting, killing, and raping. The nine-month war in Chechnya has also left thousands of Chechens without homes. More than 200,000 refugees are still living in camps in neighboring Ingushetiya -- a republic also part of Kazantsev's domain.

As head of the North Caucasus Military District for the past three years, Kazantsev was directly responsible for the military action in Chechnya. While Kazantsev always claimed that he was waging a war with "bandits" and not civilians, it was he who in essence declared a war on all Chechen men, by announcing last January that every male over 10 and under 60 years would be detained and checked. The announcement came after rebels attacked from Shali and Argun, two villages the Russians had already declared subdued.

Kazantsev then admitted to making a mistake -- he said the Russian troops had shown "too much trust and soft-heartedness" towards the Chechens. This attitude makes him an unlikely candidate to bring order to the rebellious and lawless republic.

Kazantsev's public statements since his appointment have mainly concerned security issues touching upon Chechnya. On Thursday (1 June), he explained that his main strategic task would be the "crushing of all forms of extremism and terrorism." After a bomb went off in Volgograd on Wednesday, killing two, Kazantsev announced more law-enforcement measures to avoid what he calls the growth of extremism.

"This is already a very bad symptom of the spreading out in the North Caucasus and the south of Russia. Practical measures have already been enforced. In addition to what has been announced on television, operations by law-enforcement organs are taking place."

Russian officials in Chechnya -- even those tasked with overseeing reconstruction -- have been targets of violence. The number two administrator, Sergey Zverev, was killed on Wednesday (31 May ) when his car was blown up by a bomb on a road near Grozny. Earlier last month, a helicopter carrying top administrator Nikolai Koshman was shot at in the south of the republic.

Rustam Kaliyev is a Chechen journalist and author of a report for the State Duma on Chechen attitudes towards the Russian army. He says it was not a good choice to name a man in uniform as governor general for the Caucasus. For obvious reasons, he points out, the Chechens distrust Russian generals.

Yet while Kazantsev may be hated for what he stands for, he is not hated personally, Kaliyev says. Many Russian generals are blatantly racist against Chechens. Kazantsev does not have that reputation.

The Chechen journalist says that in any case, regular army men are hated far less than Interior Ministry fighters.

Yury Gladkevich, a specialist on military affairs with the independent Military News Agency, told RFE/RL that Putin chose military men deliberately for five of the seven governor general posts. Gladkevich argues that since Putin aims to centralize power, he needs tough men who can prevent rebellion.

Still, Gladkevich says, Kazantsev is more than just a military man.

"In my opinion Kazantsev is quite a dynamic man. In the past he was not seen as a crude soldier. He would listen to his subordinates, encourage their initiatives -- which is required from any leader. To a certain extent he is, let's say, an intellectually oriented person although I won't say he's an outstanding intellectual. But that he's oriented towards this is confirmed by many who are close to him. They say he knows literature and writes. He writes poems, and not bad ones at that."

But will he be loyal to Putin? When it seemed that the Kremlin's will might falter in continuing a full-fledged war in Chechnya last November, some furious generals implied insubordination if they weren't allowed to go on. Kazantsev also spoke out. He said that Russia's officers would view an attempt to stop the war as "betrayal." And it was his subordinate in the Chechen campaign, General Vladimir Shamanov, who went even further, brandishing the threat of civil war if the army was turned from its task.

Gladkevich says the Kremlin may have picked Kazantsev to reassure the military that their views will not be ignored. Despite the general's role as the head of the military operation in Chechnya, Gladkevich thinks that Kazantsev could be a peace.

"Kazantsev could become one of the main figures in possible talks in the Caucasus. He can make a compromise possible between the need for negotiations and the army's mood because Kazantsev is now not only a general but also a politician. And being at the heart of negotiations, he could become a buffer in working out solutions both in the political and the military aspects of these problems."

Chechen journalist Kaliyev also says that while Kazantsev isn't the best choice in the eyes of ordinary Chechens, he is a logical choice considering the concentration of military personnel in the region -- 100,000 soldiers.

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