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Russia: Hostage Crisis Reveals Desperation Over Chechen Conflict

  • Gregory Feifer

The seizure of hundreds of hostages by a group of Chechen rebels in a Moscow theater last night has sparked a wave of speculation by politicians over whether the Kremlin will finally change its position on the war in Chechnya. It is widely acknowledged that the situation in the breakaway republic long ago hit a dead-end. But analysts say Moscow, in addition to being unprepared to resolve the hostage crisis, is poorly positioned to begin negotiations with Chechen rebels or otherwise seek a resolution to the ongoing conflict. That, in turn, may affect the political climate in Russia.

Moscow, 24 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A group of Chechen rebels have brought the war in their breakaway republic to the center of the world's attention by taking hundreds of people hostage in a Moscow theater. But it is entirely unclear how the situation will end, or how it will affect the war in Chechnya and Russia's political situation.

One thing is clear: The brazen hostage taking reflects the utter desperation surrounding the issue of Chechnya. At least 40 well-prepared, heavily armed rebels last night swooped in on the staging of a popular musical in the Russian capital, taking as many as 700 people hostage and issuing a sole demand: an end to the three-year-old war.

Ilyas Akhmadov, foreign minister of the separatist Chechen leadership, condemned the hostage situation in Moscow. But, in an interview with RFE/RL, he said the Kremlin is ultimately to blame because of the war's entrenched brutality. "Both [Chechen] President [Aslan] Maskhadov and our leadership have always condemned and do condemn terrorist acts and any actions that endanger the safety and lives of civilians. What is happening in Moscow is without a doubt a direct consequence of this cruel war unleashed by the Kremlin leadership and I think that any victims will be on the conscience of the Russian government," Akhmadov said.

Speaking from Boston, human rights activist Yelena Bonner agreed the conflict is Moscow's fault. "Moscow did not fulfill any of its promises [to the Chechens following the first 1994-96 Chechen war], and all this silly talk about the rebuilding, the so-called rebuilding of Chechnya, was a complete lie. The agreements reached at Khasavyurt [setting out the 1996 Russian-Chechen cease-fire] were terminated by Moscow in the most shameful way," Bonner said.

Russian troops pulled out of Chechnya in 1996 after suffering massive setbacks from rebels in a two-year campaign to bring the separatist province under control.

The Kremlin began its second campaign in the region in 1999 following incursions by Chechen rebels on Russian soil. Moscow also blamed the rebels for a series of apartment bombings in the autumn of 1999 that killed around 300 people but has been unable to provide convincing proof.

Since then, the war has bogged down, with reports of atrocities by Russian troops against civilians and mounting casualty counts on all sides. But despite the ongoing bloodshed, Moscow seemed unwilling to negotiate a settlement with the rebels, whom it often refers to as "terrorists."

Liliya Shevtsova is a political analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center. She told RFE/RL that last night's hostage taking caught the Kremlin completely by surprise. "Everyone thought one thing: It's come here, that is, [the conflict in] Chechnya has come to Moscow. It would have happened sooner or later. And it turned out that Moscow, the population as well as the city government and federal authorities, were absolutely unprepared for this kind of drama," Shevtsova said.

Hostage taking has taken place before in southern regions surrounding Chechnya. But last night's incident is by far the most visible since rebels, led by warlord Shamil Basaev, took 1,500 people hostage in a hospital in the southern city of Budennovsk in 1995 during the first Russian campaign.

Basaev was able to leave after negotiations with then-Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin but not before some 150 hostages died in attempts to storm the building. The event stoked public outrage with the war, which in turn helped lead to the peace settlement in 1996.

The current crisis, however, might be even harder to resolve, since the sole demand of the hostage takers, an end to the war, is one that the Russian government cannot accept without losing face.

Shevtsova said that neither side is now able to resolve the conflict in Chechnya and that the situation will most likely become even more intractable. The situation appears to put President Vladimir Putin, who rode to the presidency promising a quick and decisive victory in the second Chechen war, in the political hot seat. "Putin now needs to show a lot of courage, a lot of strategic thinking to overcome emotions and not to think about the elections and the consequences of his prestige and popularity. He needs to decide on a very courageous thing, thinking about what could be a peaceful resolution to this drama. I mean not only the hostage crisis but also the drama in Chechnya," Shevtsova said.

So far, Putin, who canceled a trip to Germany and Portugal in order to monitor the hostage drama, has given little indication of how he will respond to the crisis, saying that freeing the hostages and ensuring their safety is the "main goal" of law-enforcement agencies and special services on the scene.

However, the Russian president, who has been quick in the past to link the Chechen conflict to the global war on terrorism, has offered the hostage taking as proof that separatist rebels are closely linked to international terrorist groups. "The first information issued by the representatives of the terrorists holding hostages in Moscow came from outside the country. This just shows that this terrorist act, which is comparable not only to the worst terrorist attack in our country, but abroad [as well], was planned in foreign terrorist centers," Putin said.

Independent military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer said it is highly unlikely the hostage crisis will prompt negotiations over the future of Chechnya. "It's very difficult to conduct negotiations now, and it's not even clear with whom to do it. The American government, the State Department, said it does not recommend conducting negotiations with Maskhadov because he's tied to terrorists, to Al-Qaeda and Wahhabists, and entered into a union with them in recent months, and there's [past] confirmation of the opinion of the American authorities. This [hostage-taking] operation is another confirmation. So there's no one with whom to negotiate. But if negotiations aren't conducted, it may result in the death of hundreds of people in the center of Moscow, and that may just be the beginning of a large terrorist campaign," Felgenhauer said.

Felgenhauer said the crisis fundamentally changes the situation concerning Chechnya. "This is a very big operation with a large number of rebels taking part. It's clear this is not organized by just a small group. It was clear a while ago that if the Chechens switched over to this kind of operation in Russia, including Moscow, it would be easy for them because our law-enforcement agencies, especially the Interior Ministry and the police, are very poorly professionally prepared and are totally -- not totally, but very -- corrupt," Felgenhauer said.

Shevtsova said the current crisis is underlining a sense of helplessness already widespread following a number of violent acts in the capital, including the murder of a regional governor and the bombing of a McDonald's restaurant last week. "Of course, the source of this is Chechnya and, of course, the Russian authorities' total inability to win the war in Chechnya. When we think of the consequences, they can be much wider then the Chechen conflict. Such events return us to the situation with the "Kursk" [nuclear submarine]. If I can use the metaphor, we're all sitting in the "Kursk" today," Shevtsova said.

Shevtsova added that the government's inability to provide Russians with a sense of security may in turn affect public opinion ahead of parliamentary elections next year, affecting Putin's high ratings and the popularity of pro-Kremlin politicians.

Glen Howard is the executive director of the Washington-based American Committee for Peace in Chechnya, co-chaired by former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and Former Secretary of State Alexander Haig. Howard told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service that the hostage crisis does much to complicate the situation in Chechnya.

"This creates big problems for our ability to find a peaceful path of resolving the conflict. But at the same time, maybe it might help the situation, because President Putin understands the situation and what's going on in Chechnya very well," Howard said.

But, he added, the deaths of any hostages would harm the Chechen cause. "Of course, if people die there, that would be a tragedy for the Chechens, in Moscow, Russia, and here in America as well. The international community would look very badly on the Chechens because of that," Howard said.

Nikolai Patrushev, the head of the Federal Security Service, today reiterated Putin's concern that the safety of the hostages remains a top priority.