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Caucasus: Power Struggle Continues In Chechnya

Prague, 3 December 1998 (RFE/RL) -- In one of his most memorable similes, Winston Churchill compared the arcane power struggle in the Kremlin following Stalin's death to bulldog puppies fighting under a rug.

Given that its residents believe their mythical maternal ancestor was a she-wolf, the present state of politics in Russia's breakaway republic of Chechnya could well be compared to a litter of wolf cubs scrapping in similar circumstances.

The main protagonists in this protracted struggle are embattled Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, radical field commander Salman Raduyev, and former acting prime minister Shamil Basayev.

Relations among the three since the signing two years ago of the Chechen-Russian ceasefire agreement that effectively ended the combat stage of the war in Chechnya are probably most accurately described as an armed truce.

Maskhadov has embarked on the thankless task of trying to convince the international community to recognize Chechnya as an independent state, to extract from Moscow funds for rebuilding the region's war-shattered infrastructure, and to neutralize the bands of former separatist fighters now engaged in kidnapping and/or illegal oil extraction.

Raduyev has publicly resolved to continue the fight against Russia and other perceived enemies of an independent Chechen state, periodically threatening acts of terrorism and claiming the credit for others (including the failed attempt to assassinate Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze in February).

Basayev, who finished second to Maskhadov in the January 1997 presidential election, has since served twice as acting prime minister, quitting most recently in July. Two months earlier, Basayev had been elected chairman of the so-called Congress of the Peoples of Chechnya and Dagestan, the avowed objective of which is to unite those two republics in an independent North Caucasus state.

The latest tensions began in September when Basayev, Raduyev and a third former field commander, Khunkar-Pasha Israpilov, called on the parliament to impeach Maskhadov. They claimed he had jeopardized Chechnya's sovereignty and independence by continuing talks with Russia on the republic's status. When the parliament declined to do so, the field commanders referred their appeal to the Chechen Supreme Shariah court.

Maskhadov retaliated by calling for Raduyev's arrest, and on November 4 the Supreme Shariah Court sentenced him in absentia to four years' imprisonment. When Raduyev failed to comply with the court's order to turn himself in, Maskhadov stripped him of the rank of general; but an attempt on November 15 by Chechen security forces to apprehend him failed. Since then, Raduyev has ostentatiously remained in Grozny.

Russian commentators differ in their assessments of the degree to which Maskhadov's authority has been eroded.

Some believe that several field commanders who are still nominally loyal to the president covertly sympathize with Basayev and might join forces with him. Maskhadov, predictably, plays down the threat to his authority. He also argues that the apparent alliance between Basayev and Raduyev is purely tactical and unlikely to last, given their diverging interests.

Raduyev, true to past form, has acted provocatively in recent weeks, fortifying his Grozny headquarters and posting armed guards on the roof as an additional security measure. He also has rejected an apparent olive branch offered by the Supreme Shariah court, which said it would rescind the four-year prison sentence handed down on him if a medical examination concluded that he is in poor health.

Maskhadov, however, has every reason to avoid precipitating an open confrontation with Raduyev at this point, given that the new Russian government has assured him that it will finally deliver the long-promised funds for rebuilding the republic's war-shattered infrastructure.

Assuming that the seemingly endless exchange of threats and ultimatums is not a carefully staged performance aimed at convincing Moscow of the need to give continued political and financial support to Maskhadov, the covert tussle for influence could continue unabated for months.