Few Russians had ever heard of Movsar Baraev before a group of Chechen militants led by the field commander took hundreds of hostages at a Moscow theater on 23 October. Pro-Moscow Chechens and those who have spoken to the hostage takers say Baraev and his group represent a new generation of rebels who hardly remember the Soviet Union and who have few ties to Russia. They are warning that if Moscow does not immediately seek a solution to the Chechen conflict, it will be too late to find a common language.
Moscow, 25 October 2002 (RFE/RL) -- When Iosif Kobzon, a popular Soviet-era crooner and now a State Duma deputy, entered the Moscow theater yesterday where armed Chechen militants are holding hundreds of people hostage, he noticed a marked difference between the rebels he encountered there and those he has met before.
In the past, Kobzon has sat down with both Akhmend Zakaev, deputy to Aslan Maskhadov, the president of the separatist Chechen leadership, and warlord Shamil Basaev, who led a 1995 raid on the southern Russian city of Budennovsk in which some 1,500 people were taken hostage during the first Russian campaign.
This time, Kobzon spoke to a rebel who called himself Abu Bakar and who said he was representing Chechen field commander Movsar Baraev. Kobzon talked about his experience at a Moscow news conference today. "One of them took off his mask, Abu Bakar. He was a young man, a little unshaven, maybe 25 years old, 24, or 26 -- it wasn't clear, but he was young. He said, 'We're smertniki [suicide fighters]. We're all smertniki. More than that, a thousand smertniki are waiting for our order. They're not here, and on our command, they will create an event perhaps even bigger than ours,'" Kobzon said.
That independence and willingness to die, Kobzon said, is a new trait. "What happened yesterday, my meeting with [the hostage takers], it is a completely different development, different mentality. They don't answer to their elders, although that's a rule with [Chechens] -- they can't not submit to their elders. Nonetheless, these people don't answer to their ideological elders. Politically, they don't answer to those people we know from the conflict in Chechnya. That's why I'll repeat that I think this is a new formation, a new mentality," Kobzon said.
Movsar Baraev is the nephew of Chechen field commander Arbi Baraev and took over his fundamentalist splinter group when the elder Baraev was killed by Russian forces last year. The group is said not to be under the control of the separatist movement headed by Maskhadov.
Kobzon, whose singing is also loved in Chechnya, said his first meeting with the rebels was "gloomy. Everyone was in masks and camouflage, all with automatic weapons." In addition to food and water, Kobzon offered the hostage takers a radio telephone and contact with media outlets to make their views known. The militants refused, insisting their sole demand is the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya.
In a show of bluster, they asked Kobzon to contact the special forces surrounding the theater and tell them to storm the building, saying, "We want to show our courage and take with us the Russians President [Vladimir] Putin doesn't care about," Kobzon said.
"If [Putin] cared, he would have done something by now," the rebels told him.
Kobzon said Abu Bakar then told one of the female militants to show him an explosives detonator she held. He then repeated the threat that the militants would begin to kill hostages in three days if there was no progress on their demands or if "one shot was fired" in Chechnya.
During the news conference today, Kobzon went on to berate the Russian press for releasing false information about the hostage takers. Contrary to reports, he said they are "very organized, decisive, and fanatical." He said the hostage takers were praying when he arrived to talk to them in the theater's foyer.
Kobzon also said the hostage takers spoke good Russian. But that may be one of the few remaining bonds -- aside from the war itself -- tying the new generation of Chechens to Russia.
Aslambek Aslakhanov is a State Duma deputy who represents Chechnya and a prominent Chechen-rights advocate. He also held negotiations with the hostage takers yesterday and said those Chechens advocating negotiations with Moscow are the ones who grew up under the Soviet Union and retain what he called a "Soviet mentality." They are nostalgic for the past and would generally agree to a future Chechnya within Russian borders.
Aslakhanov, also speaking during a news conference today, said the younger generation in Russia has been abandoned and betrayed by their elders and their country. "They were abandoned by the regime. They grew up on cruelty and betrayal and callousness. They grew up under the rule that whoever has the greatest number of guns and armed people behind him is right. Their relatives and those close to them were killed in front of their eyes. They lost what was most dear to them. They aren't tied to anyone now. They live under their own traditions and customs," Aslakhanov said.
In five years, Aslakhanov said, it will be too late to talk about any common ties between Chechnya and Russia.
Ruslan Khasbulatov, a former speaker of the Russian parliament and himself a Chechen, agrees. Khasbulatov spearheaded the drafting of a peace plan envisaging special status for Chechnya within the borders of the Russian Federation. He said Moscow's only hope is to consider the situation in Chechnya realistically, otherwise, he said, "it will lose the entire North Caucasus."
"What is Russia as a state? It's essentially a rotting, disintegrating state with great ambitions that, of course, cannot deal with -- and will never be able to deal with -- those young wolves [Chechen militants]. There are now thousands of them. Here's one example in front of us here in Moscow," Khasbulatov said.
Meanwhile, Khasbulatov said, only a few Chechens, himself included, are trying to keep Chechnya's ties to Russia alive. Another is Maskhadov, whom he described as a "sober, reasoning man with whom it would be possible to negotiate and whom the young wolves are trying to undermine."
Since the beginning of the latest Chechen conflict in 1999, Maskhadov has repeatedly asked Moscow for talks but has been turned down because the Kremlin says he is a "terrorist."
Next in line for leadership, Khasbulatov said, would be Basaev or "someone worse, who would be against any kind of talks and who knows only the Koran and all forms of weaponry from the age of 5."
By then, it would be too late to find any common language, Khasbulatov said.