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Russia: String Of Bombings Belie Kremlin Hopes Of Chechnya's 'Normalization'

  • Jeremy Bransten

The suicide bombing that killed 50 people at a military hospital in the North Ossetian city of Mozdok last week appears to be another major setback in Moscow's increasingly bloody and unsuccessful effort to tame rebel forces in Chechnya. The recent adoption of a constitution and preparations for local elections have not "normalized" the situation in the breakaway republic, as the Kremlin had hoped.

Prague, 6 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- It has been a bloody summer -- both for Russian soldiers fighting Chechen separatists as well as for civilians far away from the battlefield caught up in attacks by Chechen suicide bombers.

Russian authorities yesterday announced the detention of three suspects for possible links to the suicide car bombing that killed 50 people at a Russian military hospital last week in Mozdok, North Ossetia.

No one has claimed responsibility for the attack, but Russian officials believe separatists in neighboring Chechnya were behind the bombing. If so, it would be the latest in a string of suicide attacks this spring and summer that would seem to contradict the Kremlin's assertion that it is bringing events in the republic under control. Significantly, many of the latest incidents have taken place outside Chechnya. Some have been foiled but many more have claimed innocent victims.

Three weeks ago, a police officer in Moscow was killed when a bomb carried by an intended female Chechen suicide bomber blew up as it was being defused outside the restaurant that had been its original target. At the start of July, two Chechen suicide bombers -- also women -- detonated explosive belts strapped to their bodies at the entrance to an outdoor rock concert, killing 15 people, including the bombers. Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov said the number of casualties could have been even greater had the women succeeded in getting inside the arena.

A month earlier, at the beginning of June, another female suicide bomber in the republic of North Ossetia blew herself up as a bus carrying Russian military personnel drove past. The result: 17 people killed. In May, at least 10 people were killed in the Chechen village of Iliskhan-Yurt by another suicide bomber. The list goes on -- as does the daily tally of battle casualties, which is estimated to be costing the lives of some 100 Russian soldiers a month and an even higher number of Chechen fighters and civilians caught in the crossfire.

The Kremlin's drafting of a new constitution for Chechnya, approved in a popular referendum this spring; the announcement of a limited amnesty; Moscow's transfer of control for security operations from the Federal Security Service (FSB) to the Russian Interior Ministry; preparations for the election of a Chechen president this October -- none of these steps aimed at "normalizing" the situation in the war-torn republic has helped. Why? RFE/RL asked Thomas de Waal, an analyst at the British-based Center for War and Peace Reporting and the author of "Chechnya: Calamity in the Caucasus."

De Waal believes there are two fundamental problems preventing a resolution to the conflict. The first is corruption. Too many Russian civilian and military officials -- throughout the chain of command in Chechnya -- are making money from the war to want it to stop.

"I think that's a very significant factor. I think basically that the criminalization of Russian forces in Chechnya is possibly the biggest problem of all. They're dealing in the oil industry, they're basically engaged in extortion from the local population, they use violence to earn money. A lot of the 'kontraktniki' [contract soldiers] have basically gone to Chechnya not to serve their country but to make money," de Waal told RFE/RL.

Although Russian media report almost daily on Russian military successes in the republic, the fact is that little has changed in the nearly four years since tens of thousands of Russian forces rolled back into Chechnya. Chechen rebel commanders remain at large, well-armed with weapons and up-to-date intelligence -- all pointing to corruption, according to de Waal.

"We have to ask ourselves the question: why are the rebels still fighting on, where are they getting their weapons from, how come all the main rebel leaders are still operating freely in Chechnya, almost four years after the second war began? And Chechnya is not a very large place. Corruption has to be a major answer to that question and until it's sorted out, things will just get worse in Chechnya rather than better," he said.

The second reason for the Kremlin's inability to contain the conflict in Chechnya, according to de Waal, is the Russian government's continued refusal to hold negotiations with any separatist leader, including Aslan Maskhadov. Maskhadov, despite a fall in his popularity among Chechens and doubts about the extent of his control over fractious rebel commanders, remains the main political figure in the republic who can claim legitimacy, having been formerly elected as president. By contrast, his Moscow-backed successor Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov, who aspires to win local presidential elections in October, appears ineffectual -- forced to move around the Chechen capital Grozny amid a phalanx of bodyguards and contending with frequent assassination attempts.

Although Maskhadov has always distanced himself from terror attacks against Russian civilians, de Waal draws a comparison to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and his relationship to more radical Palestinian groups, arguing that marginalizing both leaders hurts rather than helps prospects for peace.

"There are parallels here, for example, between Yasser Arafat and Hamas. Yasser Arafat certainly didn't support the tactic of suicide bombing but again didn't do anything in his power to stop it," he said.

Journalist Sanobar Shermatova, who has reported on both Chechen wars for the weekly "Moskovskie novosti," agrees. She told RFE/RL that basically, the Kremlin has two options. "The Russian government only has two solutions left -- either destroy [the rebels] or sit down at the negotiating table and strike a deal. There is no third way. If these terrorist groups are not neutralized and if they are not negotiated with, it means Muscovites and the inhabitants of other Russian cities as well as the inhabitants of Chechnya will continue living in fear, under the threat of a new act of terror," she said.

For now, however, the Russian government -- preparing for legislative elections in December and a new presidential election next spring -- appears wedded to its script of administrative changes for Chechnya and seems prepared to accept more terror attacks. The message to Russian voters, Shermatova says, is clear: "The propaganda machine will be broadcasting the following message: the federal authorities have regulated the situation in Chechnya but international terrorism is a common disease that is affecting the entire civilized world -- and Russia falls into that civilized world. I think that's going to be the message."

Cynicism about the actions of the government and law enforcement agencies is growing more entrenched among some Russian journalists. Yulia Latynina, in "The Moscow Times" today, writes the following: "Heroic policemen seem to uncover new caches of explosives every other day.... Then TV crews turn up and broadcast the news of their achievements to the entire nation. Yet no matter how many caches of explosives the authorities raid, there always seems to be more than enough to go around. Don't you find that a little strange?"

The question seems unlikely to be answered. But Shermatova said among ordinary Muscovites, who now ride to work on metro trains guarded by extra police patrols, the increasing terror attacks are breeding ethnic hatred and more -- not less -- support for military reprisals.

"Actually, I think that all these terrorist acts, the acts that took place in Moscow, are fueling hate -- not so much a hatred of war, which is the reason for the acts of terror -- but hate towards Chechens, towards outsiders," she said.

The bitter irony, says Thomas de Waal, is that back in Chechnya, most civilians yearn for peace and long ago gave up fighting for independence. "I think the mass of the Chechen population now probably rejects the rebel side, probably even rejects the idea of independence," he said. "They would actually welcome even some kind of moderate government from Moscow. The tragedy is that the Russian Army is still out of control and the leaders that the Russians are relying on are particularly brutal. So I think in that sense, by its actions in the last few months, the Kremlin has actually missed a lot of good opportunities."

The cycle of violence seems destined to continue.

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