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1997 In Review: A Year Of Calm Before More Storms In The Caucasus

Prague, 8 December 1997 (RFE/RL) - After two years of war in Chechnya, 1997 proved to be a year of relative calm in the North Caucasus. The appointment of Avar Ramazan Abdulatipov -- from Dagestan -- as a Russian deputy prime minister reflected Russia's awareness that the entire region remains a tinder-box, but Moscow's policies were nonetheless mostly of an ad hoc nature rather than geared to long-term stabilization.

Former Chechen chief-of-staff Aslan Maskhadov's victory in the January Chechen presidential election elicited relief and approval among Moscow politicians who viewed the former Soviet army colonel as the most moderate candidate with whom to negotiate an agreement formalizing bilateral relations. These hopes were substantiated when Maskhadov and Russian President Boris Yeltsin signed a formal peace accord in May.

Maskhadov's subsequent inconsistent pronouncements were widely interpreted, however, as proof of a behind-the-scenes power struggle in Grozny pitting Maskhadov against more radical figures such as former acting president Zelimkhan Yandarbiev and field commander Shamil Basaev. Basaev, who had finished second to Maskhadov in the presidential poll, relinquished the post of deputy prime minister in July, but was reappointed acting prime minister by Maskhadov prior to the latter's November visit to Turkey and the U.S.

The Chechen parliament's repeated rejection of Maskhadov's demand for expanded powers fueled speculation that his influence was waning. Internal discord among the Chechen leadership did not, however, prevent the signing in September of a temporary agreement between the Russian pipeline monopoly Transneft and the Chechen state oil company. The deal is aimed at repairing and guarding the Chechen sector of the Baku-Grozny-Novorossiisk oil pipeline through which Azerbaijan's Caspian oil began to flow in November.

The question of Chechnya's status within the Russian Federation proved intractable, however. Grozny continues to insist that the Chechen Republic Ichkeria is de facto an independent state and should be recognized as such by Moscow -- a demand which the Russian leadership categorically rejects.

Several rounds of Russian-Chechen talks on two alternative draft treaties defining bilateral relations have failed to make any progress. In late November, Russian Security Council secretary Ivan Rybkin proposed that Chechnya be given the status of "a self-ruling republic within the Russian Federation," but legal experts expressed doubt that the Russian parliament would approve the amendments to the Constitution that would permit this.

Russian government ministries systematically delayed allocating funds to rebuild Chechnya's devastated infrastructure. Meanwhile, the televised executions in Grozny in September of several convicted murderers and the insistence by several leading political figures that Chechnya is an Islamic state compounded Russian mistrust of the Grozny leadership.

A further disquieting development was the deterioration of relations between Chechnya and neighboring Dagestan. It is widely believed that radical Chechen politicians, including Basaev, are fueling tensions in Dagestan's border regions -- home to an estimated 70,000 ethnic Chechens -- to undermine Russia's influence in the region and create a Chechen-dominated independent Caucasian federation.

A marked upsurge in September-October in abductions, shootings and cattle thefts on both sides of the border impelled Dagestan to consider creating a volunteer militia to maintain order. The Dagestani leadership's repeated offer to sign a formal friendship treaty with Chechnya was ignored by Grozny.

Developments in North Ossetia indicated, however, that even when local leaders meet to sign formal agreements, those agreements do not necessarily contribute to minimizing tensions. Following a sharp increase in violence in July in North Ossetia's Prigorodnyi raion, where several hundred Ingush had been killed in fighting with Ossetian militia forces in late1992, Yeltsin convened a meeting in August between North Ossetian President Akhsarbek Galazov and his Ingush counterpart Ruslan Aushev.

Yeltsin rejected Aushev's plea to impose presidential rule on the disputed district to protect the Ingush living there, but agreed to provide 200 billion rubles ($34.5 million) annually for the next two years to rebuild housing for Ingush made homeless during the 1992 fighting. In return, Aushev and Galazov agreed to defer for a period of 15 to 20 years any discussion of returning the district to Ingushetia's jurisdiction.

That compromise agreement may serve to maintain tenuous stability in the short-term but it risks compounding the Ingush perception of being discriminated against by Moscow. Candidates for the 1998 presidential elections in Ingushetia may seek to exploit popular discontent, and in doing so provoke a counter-reaction among the Ossetians.

Presidential elections are likewise due in North Ossetia in 1998, as are elections for a new State Council chairman in Dagestan; both polls could further exacerbate existing tensions and rivalries. In short, 1997 may prove to have been a brief interlude between the war in Chechnya and a new wave of violence in the North Caucasus.