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Caucasus: Chechen Opposition Seeks Share Of Power

Prague, 28 January 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Amid confusion over some recent developments in Chechnya, it appears the opposition may be preparing to force a power-sharing agreement on President Aslan Maskhadov.

Last week (Jan. 21) Chechen Deputy Prime Minister Turpal Atgeriev, in charge of law enforcement agencies loyal to President Aslan Maskhadov, announced that shariah security ministry forces had clashed with armed Islamist opposition forces in the town of Urus Martan.

Atgeriev said that the fighting signaled the beginning of an attempted coup by forces he declined to name. But other Chechen officials denied that any armed clashes had taken place in Urus Martan. Culture Minister Akhmed Zakayev termed Atgeriev's statement a "fabrication", a claim substantiated when an Interfax correspondent visited the town but discovered no trace of recent fighting.

Maskhadov's special representative Yusup Soslambekov explained to Russia's "Nezavisimaya gazeta" newspaper that what had taken place was a routine scuffle resulting from the local armed formations' insistence on monitoring all traffic through the town.

However, at a press conference last Saturday, President Maskhadov repeated Atgeriev's claim that fighting had occurred in Urus Martan, stating that "there are no forces in the republic capable of seizing power by military means and removing the president."

In addition, Maskhadov again affirmed that he has the support of the Chechen people. Maskhadov then went on to blame Russia for provoking the alleged incident, arguing that repeated statements by Russian politicians in his support only serve to alienate his fellow former field commanders.

The Chechen opposition, too, has accused Moscow of trying to drive a wedge between the various factions within Chechnya. But both Maskhadov and the field commanders who oppose him insist that they are anxious to avoid bloodshed. This does not mean, however, that the opposition does not want to try to impose its own demands on Maskhadov.

Meeting this week (Jan. 26), former acting President Zelimkhan Yandarbiev and leading field commanders drafted what they termed a program of measures for the redistribution of power in Chechnya, which they have presented to Maskhadov. They said those measures are necessary to bring the region out of the present state of political crisis.

The opposition's demands to the president represent the culmination of a standoff which has lasted for several months in the breakaway Russian republic.

Since last October, three influential field commanders have appealed first to the Chechen parliament and then to the Supreme Shariah court to impeach Maskhadov on treason charges. The three are former acting Premier Shamil Basayev, radical Salman Raduyev and Khunkar-pasha Israpilov. The court and parliament both declined to act against Maskhadov.

Possibly in return for its support of the president, the parliament rejected Maskhadov's proposal for restructuring the cabinet. The Shariah court, in turn, called for the parliament's powers to be transferred to an Islamic council of field commanders, including Basayev and Raduyev. That proposal prompted Maskhadov to announce the creation of a special commission charged with drafting a new Islamic constitution. Russian politicians have recently expressed alarm at the possibility of a new large-scale conflict in Chechnya. Moscow therefore may have grounds to try to provoke a showdown between Maskhadov and the field commanders in the hope that the Chechen president would prove strong enough to neutralize his opponents. But there is scant evidence to substantiate Maskhadov's allegations that recent statements by Russian politicians were made with the deliberate intention of sparking an armed confrontation between Maskhadov and the opposition.

Nor is it clear how Maskhadov will respond to the field commanders' proposals. Russian observers say that, two years after his election as president, his power has been eroded. They characterize the situation of the past few months as close to deadlock, in which the various players have enough leeway to issue ultimatums or threats in the hope of extracting minor concessions, but none of them is strong enough to undertake decisive action that would fundamentally change the situation. The field commanders' proposals are presumably intended to take advantage of Maskhadov's weakness and wrest a greater share of power.