Washington, March 29 (RFE/RL) - Moscow's increasingly
violent military campaign in Chechnya not only is further
antagonizing the Chechen opposition but also is alienating the other
Muslim peoples of the Russian Federation and Moscow's Muslim
neighbors in Central Asia and the Caucasus.
The Russian military's continuing struggle against the Chechen
opposition, sharply criticized this week in an OSCE study as "warfare
against the civilian population," has failed to bring Moscow any real
victories. Instead, the very viciousness of the Russian attacks has
convinced many Chechens that they have no option but to go on
fighting and has prompted some Russian political leaders to form a
broad coalition to oppose the war.
While the resolve of the Chechens to fight on and the willingness of Russians to speak out against the war may be serious headaches for
Russian President Boris Yeltsin, another result of the Russian army's
latest campaign may have even more fateful consequences for the
Russian Federation in the future. That result is the increasing
tendency of leaders of Muslim nationalities within the Russian
Federation to condemn Moscow's handling of the war.
On Monday, Mintimir Shaimiev, the newly re-elected president of
Tatarstan, publicly called on Moscow to grant an amnesty to Chechen
leader Jokar Dudayev and to include him in all future peace talks.
On Tuesday, leaders from Tatarstan, Bashkortostan, and several north
Caucasian republics met with the Russian Federation's Muslim
Association to try to develop an alternative peace plan for Chechnya,
one that would include all Chechens and not just the current
Moscow-installed leadership. And on Wednesday and Thursday,
representatives of these groups met with Western experts in The Hague
to explore the same issues.
Given that Moscow has declared Dudayev an outlaw for his role in
the war and that Yeltsin has shown little willingness to seek
a solution other than by force, the Russian government seems unlikely
That is Moscow's mistake. Beginning in October 1993 when the
Russian authorities expelled otherwise innocent "persons of Caucasian
nationality" from Moscow after Yeltsin dispersed the Supreme Soviet
by force and even more in past 16 months of fighting, Russian
officials and journalists often have presented the conflict in
Chechnya as one between Christian Russia and Muslim Chechnya. That
may have helped to generate support for the fighting among some
Russians and even some Western countries, but it has done nothing to
endear Moscow to Muslim groups. Not surprisingly, ever more of them
are speaking out, and their attitudes could spell major difficulties
for Russia in the future.
By itself, Chechnya is only a tiny part of Russia, but Muslim
nationalities like the Tatars and Bashkirs make up more than 10
percent of the population of the Russian Federation. If these groups
decide that they can and must oppose the Yeltsin government on
Chechnya, Moscow not only has a bigger immediate problem, but it has
a virtually insoluble longer term one as well.
If Yeltsin continues to foster the impression that this war is
part of Russia's struggle with Islam, he will find the leaders
in Kazan, Ufa, and other Muslim centers within the Russian Federation
less interested in talking with him and more willing to listen to
those who argue that these autonomous republics need real independence.
Moreover, Moscow's increasingly anti-Muslim line in Chechnya is
offending Russia's Muslim neighbors in Central Asia. Traditionally
the most willing of the former Soviet republics to cooperate with
Moscow, the Central Asian countries have been frightened not only by
the Belarusian "union" idea but also by Moscow's attitude toward
Muslims as such. Many, such as the Uzbeks, are now drawing away from
further talks with Moscow. And even those such as the Kyrgyz who are
pursuing closer ties now feel compelled to justify their actions by
arguing that they must move now because a future Russian government
might be even more hostile to its Muslim neighbors.