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Russia: Analysis From Washington--New Moves On The Chechen Front

Washington, 16 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Moscow's decision this week to seek financing for a railroad bypassing Chechnya points to a possible way out of the current impasse in Russian thinking about the future status of Chechnya.

On Tuesday, the Russian news agency Itar-Tass reported that Russian officials were actively seeking financing for the construction of a rail line that would allow trains from Russia to reach Daghestan and Azerbaijan without passing through Chechen territory.

The 78 kilometers of track would cost an estimated $185 million and the Russian officials involved said that if financing can be arranged, the project could be completed sometime in 1998.

Both the path of the new line -- around Chechnya -- and the date for its completion -- well before the end of the five-year cooling-off period called for by the August 31 ceasefire -- are important.

Taken together, they suggest that the Russian government may now have a short-term and a long-term strategy for Chechnya.

In the short term, the construction of such a rail line suggests that Moscow wants to be able to isolate Chechnya economically without giving the Chechens the opportunity to respond in kind.

Such a strategy, especially if it ultimately includes the construction of an oil pipeline that would bypass Chechnya as well, would seem to have much to recommend it from Moscow's point of view.

Without transportation arteries crossing through their territory, the Chechens would inevitably be impoverished, and Moscow's ability to influence them might increase even if the Russian government provided no aid.

But such a Russian strategy may have an even more important consequence for the longer term. By reducing the impact Chechnya now has on Russian economic interests in the north Caucasus, the construction of such a line would inevitably make it easier for Russians to accept the independence of a Chechnya.

Up to now, questions of national pride and political stability have dominated Russian public discourse about Chechnya, but questions of economic power and access appear to have been more important in the political councils of Moscow.

The new rail bypass would thus remove an important component from the Russian coalition that has supported the war against the Chechens.

Moreover, such a shift in the sphere of Russia's economic interests appears to mirror a shift in Russia's political concerns there.

The composition of the presidential commission on Chechnya formed on Monday -- and especially President Boris Yeltsin's designation of his security chief Aleksandr Lebed as its head -- point to a major shift in Moscow, one that makes the resumption of hostilities less and less likely.

And the comment of one Duma deputy after Tuesday's session may thus now say it all: "Endless calls to preserve Russia's territorial integrity at all costs fail to convince anybody any more."

Thus, the decision to build a railroad may also open the path to Chechen independence.