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Russia: What Happens When Putin's Deadline To Chechen Separatists Expires?

  • Francesca Mereu

In a televised speech this week, Russian President Vladimir Putin spelled out a five-point strategy in which Moscow will support U.S. military operations in Afghanistan by assisting the Afghan opposition forces with arms and technological supplies. Putin also linked the fight against terrorism to the rebellion Russia is facing in breakaway Chechnya and gave the separatists there 72 hours to begin disarmament talks. The question is, what will Moscow do if the separatists don't hand in their weapons?

Moscow, 26 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin has outlined Russia's plan to help the United States battle terrorism.

The U.S. is considering a military assault against Afghanistan, the country believed to be harboring Osama bin Laden, the terrorist suspected to have masterminded the 11 September attacks in New York and Washington.

In a speech to the Russian people this week (24 September), Putin said Moscow will send arms and military equipment in support of the Northern Alliance -- the anti-Taliban opposition in Afghanistan -- and offer its airspace to any humanitarian aid flights that might result from possible military action against Afghanistan. He also promised to share intelligence information on the actions and movements of international terrorists.

In his speech, Putin -- referring to Russia's conflict in its breakaway republic of Chechnya -- said his country has been leading its own fight against international terrorism and has on many occasions asked the international community for help. He emphasized that the Chechen conflict should not be considered "outside the background of efforts against international terrorism."

Putin urged the Chechen rebels to end their alleged contacts with international terrorists. He gave them a 72-hour deadline to contact Russian authorities and begin to discuss the process of disarmament.

Victor Kazantsev, the president's envoy to the North Caucasus, was appointed to lead the negotiations from the Russian side. Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov said in a statement yesterday that he will send Akhmed Zakaev, the deputy prime minister of the separatist government, to any such talks.

Maskhadov pointed out that the Chechen separatists are not linked to terrorism and that the conflict is rooted in Chechnya's long desire for independence.

Gennady Selesnyov, the president of Russia's State Duma or lower house of parliament, welcomed Putin's ultimatum to the rebels:

"This will give one more chance to those people who turned to the side of [terrorists] bands accidentally or due to their religious principles, or to those who were forced under the menace of machine guns to take part in some armed detachments."

The Republic of Ingushetia borders Chechnya in the east. It has a population of 350,000 and currently hosts some 170,000 refugees. Ingushetia's President Ruslan Aushev is not happy with the Kremlin's ultimatum. He says he does not believe Chechen fighters are ready to give up their weapons and is worried that more refugees may flood into Ingushetia:

"I doubt that [the Chechen fighters] will give up their weapons. But after the ultimatum, the federal forces will increase their presence in Chechnya and there will be a retort [from the Chechen fighters' side]. This situation will have repercussions on the [Chechen] civilians. Not only the [refugees who live in Ingushetia] won't go back home, but I think that other refugees may come [to Ingushetia] from many Chechen villages."

Ingush officials say the tiny territory lacks the necessary structures to host the deluge of refugees. Aushev said a new wave of refugees would be a significant social danger and a further strain on the republic's economy.

Sergei Ushenkov is deputy chairman of the State Duma's Defense Committee. He welcomes Putin's call to support the international efforts to fight terrorism, but he said there are many things that remain unclear concerning his ultimatum to the Chechen rebels. Ushenkov says it is impossible to settle in 72 hours a situation that required so many years of war.

"In a two-year anti-terrorism operation, [authorities] were unable to reach any [positive] results, and [now] it is impossible to believe that in 72 hours [the Chechen] fighters will give up their weapons. It can be explained in two different ways: [one], the information that Putin is given is not reliable. [Two,] the president of the Russian Federation wishes to use the international anti-terrorism wave to appear as a strong, tough opponent of terrorism."

Ushenkov believes this is not the right way to fight terrorism. He says it is not clear what Putin will do if the Chechen rebels don't give up their weapons.

"This kind of ultimatum is unlikely to be successful against terrorism. Moreover, it is not clear whether the president is going to declare the state of emergency or not if the ultimatum isn't fulfilled."

This is also the question many of Russia's newspapers are asking today. The daily "Novye Izvestia" considers the president's ultimatum strange: "It [the ultimatum] dictates conditions, but it does not say what kind of sanctions [there will be] if conditions aren't fulfilled. What are authorities going to do after the 72 hours? If they don't do anything, they will look a bit silly. But we can wait for the worst: They may start doing something and now the West is too busy with its own troubles."

Ushenkov says the authorities must take some form of action if the ultimatum isn't fulfilled, but whatever action is taken, it must be according to the law or Russia, he says, "will lose face once again."

Ushenkov says that if Russia uses illegal methods in its fight against the separatists, it will tarnish its "already weak democratic image." Ushenkov says the state must always act according to the law: "The state differs from bandits because it acts according to the law. Even a fight against bandits should be carried out according to the law."

Ushenkov hopes the Russian authorities will not repeat the mistake they made in September 1999 when they ordered a new invasion of Chechnya. Now, according to Ushenkov, a reinforcement of Russian troops in Chechnya will only be further stimulus for the rebels to fight harder.

Andrei Piontkovski, the director of the Center for Strategic Studies, told RFE/RL's Russian Service that he was surprised to hear Russia give advice to the West on how to behave in any eventual war in Afghanistan.

"They all say the right things," Piontkovski says. "You shouldn't kill civilians, otherwise you are going to have many refugees and then people will hate America and you'll have more terrorists and so on."

Piontkovski says the Russian authorities apparently believe they can do what they want in Chechnya now, since the West, they believe, cannot criticize them anymore.

"When they [generals and politicians] go to a [TV] studio to answer different questions with triumphant glints in their eyes, they say: 'Now, at the end, we'll have carte blanche in Chechnya. Nobody will have the heart to criticize us.' What kind of carte blanche [are they talking about]? We turned Grozny into Dresden. We lost thousands of soldiers. We killed thousands of civilians. We are warning the Americans about the mistakes we made. And, unfortunately, the same idea was present in the second part of President [Putin's] speech."

So far, some 48 hours into Putin's ultimatum to the separatists, no visible results can be seen. In fact, reports indicate that fighting is continuing in the breakaway republic.

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