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1997 In Review: Chechnya-Russia Relations Fail To Improve

Prague, 10 December 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Three years ago this week, the Kremlin sent thousands of army and interior ministry troops into Chechnya, to quell the Caucasus republic's three-year old independence drive.

Then-Defense Minister Pavel Grachev boasted that the operation would be over in a matter of days. It lasted 21 months and ended in humiliating defeat for Moscow. Trillions of rubles and thousands of bodies later, the Kremlin was forced to pull its troops out of the tiny republic.

At the start of this year, Chechen commander Aslan Maskhadov was elected president of his republic. In May, Moscow and Chechnya signed a five-sentence peace treaty.

But as 1997 draws to a close, a large question mark continues to hang over Chechnya. There is no comprehensive agreement governing relations between Moscow and Grozny. The Kremlin insists that Chechnya is and will always be an integral part of Russia, although it has lost de facto control of the republic.

Chechen leaders, meanwhile, claim complete independence for Chechnya, though international recognition eludes them and reconstruction of their ruined republic will largely depend on Russian aid and trade.

And so, despite the long and costly war, it could be said that relations between Moscow and Grozny have not progressed much since Chechnya first made its bid for independence, back in 1991.

The last time Russian President Boris Yeltsin and Aslan Maskhadov met was this August in Moscow. At that meeting, the Chechen leader demanded $260 billion in war reparations -- a sum equivalent to 60 percent of Russia's entire annual GDP. Yeltsin countered by saying Moscow had already allocated $138 million's worth of aid to the republic in 1997, but he admitted that more than $100 million of that total had disappeared. "The devil only knows where the money is going," he said, not making clear whether the funds had vanished while still in Moscow or somewhere in transit.

In any case, Yeltsin was clear that Moscow does not intend to satisfy Chechnya's astronomical demands and he added that any more funds, such as they are, will be contingent on Chechnya's giving up its independence claims.

The recent reopening of the pipeline linking Azerbaijan's oil fields with the Russian port of Novorossisk is one bright spot for both sides. More than 100 kilometers of the line crosses through Chechnya and transit fees should put some money in its coffers. But just how much and for how long is also contested. The current transit contract, for which Chechnya is to receive $850,000, runs out at the end of the year and a new deal has not been prepared. In addition, Moscow has announced its intention to puruse other transit routes that would circumvent the republic altogether.

A couple of weeks ago, Yeltsin announced his intention to visit Chechnya at the start of next year. His spokesman said a direct phone conversation with Maskhadov was imminent. But that has yet to happen.

Just this week, Maskhadov handed some of his powers to Shamil Basayev, a former field commander who led a bloody hostage-taking raid on the Russian town of Budennovsk in 1995. Basayev's new duties make him the republic's de-facto prime minister, putting him in charge of the cabinet and most ministries. The move is sure to irk Moscow and further complicate relations. Perhaps the only lesson to come from Moscow's costly and failed intervention is that conflicts between Russia and Chechnya cannot be resolved by force. That much was agreed by both Yeltsin and Maskhadov at their August talks. But an absence of war does not necessarily translate into a fruitful peace or cooperative bilateral relations. Six years after Chechnya declared independence and more than a year after it obtained de facto confirmation of that declaration, at enormous cost, the future still looks very uncertain.