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Russia: Chechen Gangs Threaten Stability In North Caucasus

Prague, 7 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The Chechen government is still unable to control, at both federal and local levels, the various military, religious and criminal groups that have mushroomed throughout the North Caucasus over the past few years.

This was demonstrated by the last month (April 16) attack on a Russian military convoy in North Ossetia. It was further confirmed by the abduction (on May 1) of Valentin Vlasov, Russian President Boris Yeltsin's personal envoy to Chechnya.

The process of militarization of local politics began in Chechnya in 1991, prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union, with the creation of Djohar Dudaev's presidential guard. Its leader later split with Dudaev for ideological reasons and set up his own armed formation.

Following the Russian invasion of Chechnya in late 1994, domestic resistance centered on small, mobile, semi-autonomous military formations serving under individual field commanders who pledged loyalty to Dudaev but frequently fought among themselves.

Since his election as President in January, 1997, former Chechen chief of staff Aslan Maskhadov has tried to coopt the members of those formations by offering them employment in either the Chechen regular army or one of the numerous other Chechen law enforcement agencies. These efforts met with minimal success.

In addition to the regular army and the presidential guard, Chechnya has a "shariat guard," an Islamic regiment, an anti-terrorism center, a National Security Service, which includes a counter-intelligence section, a Customs and Frontier Service Department, and a Ministry of Internal Affairs. The combined strength of these agencies is said to be approximately 11,000.

Estimates of the numbers of individual armed groups which do not acknowledge Maskhadov's leadership vary wildly. Chechen vice president Kazbek Makhashev recently put it at 159, while earlier this year a Russian government source claimed it is close to 300.

These groups are said to possess tanks, armored personnel carriers and anti-aircraft systems, presumably acquired illicitly from the Russian military prior to the 1996 ceasefire agreement.

The largest and most professional include the so-called Army of General Dudaev, headed by radical field commander Salman Raduev, who has repeatedly vowed to continue military and terrorist activities against Russia. Another major group is said to be led by a Jordanian Muslim known only as Khottab. Russian commentators consistently demonize the latter, who, they claim, has links to, and is financed by, radical Islamic organizations intent on destabilizing the entire North Caucasus region.

Such armed formations not only constitute a threat to the Chechen leadership, but also operate with impunity elsewhere in the North Caucasus, especially in Dagestan, Ingushetia and North Ossetia. The rugged terrain along the borders between Chechnya and Ingushetia, and Ingushetia and North Ossetia, renders control of those borders virtually impossible.

Such activities by Chechen bands operating on neighboring territory are partly criminal -- thefts of cattle and sheep and abductions for ransom -- but also partly political-ideological. The districts of Dagestan adjacent to the border with Chechnya were formerly part of the Chechen-Ingush ASSR and have a sizable minority Chechen population. Many people residing there support acting Chechen Prime Minister Shamil Basaev in his proclaimed aim of creating a Greater Chechen state that would incorporate tracts of other North Caucasus republics, including Dagestan. The Dagestani leadership has proposed forming a volunteer frontier guard to counter armed incursions from Chechnya. Dagestan too has its informal para-military formations, mostly the private armies of influential political and/or business figures.

The combined Russian and Chechen teams formed to investigate the abduction of Vlasov have offered three possible explanations of the abductors' motives. First, to derail the stalled talks between Moscow and Grozny on Chechnya's future political status vis-a-vis the Russian Federation. Second, to demand a ransom, although the kidnappers have not yet done so. Third, to arrange Vlasov's exchange for Chechen or Ingush political figures currently detained in Moscow. The names of former Grozny mayor Beslan Gantemirov and Ingush acting Interior Minister Daud Korigov have been mentioned in this connection.

But even if the identity of Vlasov's kidnappers becomes known, the Chechen leadership may hesitate to take action against them, adducing the tradition of the blood feud, still widely observed in the North Caucasus, as a deterrent to such action.

Russian officials are unlikely to be deterred by such considerations, but may similarly prefer to avoid a military operation to secure Vlasov's release that could result in significant Russian casualties.