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Analysis: Is There Light Or Death At The End Of The Chechen Tunnel?

"Why is Putin's Russia doomed to defeat in Chechnya?" asks self-exiled Russian oligarch Boris Berezovskii in an article published in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 19 May. The article is pegged to the claim made two days earlier by radical field commander Shamil Basaev of responsibility for the 9 May bomb blast in Grozny that killed pro-Moscow Chechen leader Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov.

Berezovskii argued that the answer to that question lies not in some international conspiracy nor in a covert struggle for power in Grozny, but in the nature of Russian's political system. He said that the Russian Federation is duplicating, albeit on a smaller scale, the top-down approach to the question of national self-determination espoused by the USSR.

Specifically, he pointed out that "in all its long history Russia has never had a liberal socio-political [state] structure," and for that reason has no experience in preserving the wholeness of the state (gosudarstvennaya tselostnost) in conditions of political and economic decentralization. As a result, Russia is currently experiencing considerable internal strain resulting from the efforts of conservative elements to preserve centralized power in the face of demands for a market economy and the decentralization of power.

There are, according to Berezovskii, two alternative ways of defusing those tensions. The first is destructive, and consists of continuing with the previous policy of a pyramid of power that culminated in the collapse of the USSR and could also lead to the collapse of Russia. But Berezovskii also pointed out that granting Chechnya independence would be as dangerous as seeking to keep it by force within the Russian Federation, as doing so would only expedite the disintegration of the Russian state.
Berezovskii pointed out that granting Chechnya independence would be as dangerous as seeking to keep it by force within the Russian Federation.

The constructive alternative is cardinal changes in the relations between the federal center and the federation subjects, and between the federation subjects themselves, in the form of delegating greater powers to the latter and making their relations with the center "more flexible." That, Berezovskii said, would in turn defuse existing tensions.

Berezovskii then highlights the two principles which, he proposed, should constitute the foundation for a new liberal political and economic state model. The first is that the federation subjects should decide which powers to delegate to the central government, rather than vice versa; and the second is that "in full accordance with the Constitution of the Russian Federation, all national republics shall be granted the status of states [gosudarstvennyi status]."

Berezovskii then proceeded to address the second fundamental question facing Russia: is it possible to end the war in Chechnya? He answered that question in the affirmative, providing that three conditions are met.

First, that President Vladimir Putin decides it is expedient to do so. Second, that the Russian leadership acknowledges that the only way to end the war is to begin talks with the Chechen resistance in the person of its leader, Aslan Maskhadov, whom Berezovskii stressed is "the legitimately elected president of Chechnya." Berezovskii dismissed as devoid of any logical foundation the Kremlin's repeated argument that Maskhadov neither represents nor enjoys the support of the Chechen population. Third, Berezovskii pointed out that Chechens' perceptions of the current war differ fundamentally from the war of 1994-1996. They recognize that while Russian President Boris Yeltsin sent troops into Chechnya in December 1994 to preserve the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation, the present war is directed specifically against the Chechen people. The mutual distrust between Chechens and Russians has consequently acquired a totally new dimension. In such circumstances, Berezovskii wrote, unnamed "international institutions" must provide Chechens with a water-tight guarantee that they will not be subjected again to genocide and war.

Berezovskii acknowledged that governments are invariably reluctant to admit to mistakes, let alone to defeats. For that reason, he continued, the citizens of Russia must "help" President Putin to take "the difficult but inevitable decision" to abandon the attempt to solve the "Chechen problem" by force. That "help" should take the form of the expression of public opinion in a form that the leadership cannot ignore, such as mass protests comparable to those in the U.S. in the late 1960s against the Vietnam war.

There are, however, indications that President Putin is irrevocably committed to seeking a military solution to the Chechen conflict. The pro-Maskhadov website reported on 19 May that Putin recently ordered his "power" ministers to liquidate Maskhadov, together with his closest associates, within the shortest possible time -- and regardless of the cost.