Moscow, 10 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- After several days of strong statements, Russian leaders seem to be backing away from accusations made following the abduction of a Russian Interior Ministry general in Chechnya.
Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov today will chair an emergency government meeting that will focus on Moscow's response to the abduction of General Gennady Shpigun in Grozny last Friday. Kidnappers dragged Shpigun off an airplane just before it was to take off from Grozny airport.
President Boris Yeltsin -- who yesterday was briefed on the increasingly tense situation surrounding Chechnya by Interior Minister Sergei Stepashin -- decided that Primakov should deal with the crisis. The prime minister returned to Moscow from a Black Sea vacation last night.
Top Russian security officials, representatives of different ministries and the speakers of both houses of the Russian parliament will attend today's government meeting in Moscow.
Meanwhile, Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov has called for a meeting with Russian leaders to coordinate measures aimed at finding the general.
Earlier this week, Stepashin lashed out at Maskhadov for allowing criminal gangs to operate with de-facto impunity in Chechnya. In a harshly worded statement issued on Sunday, Stepashin warned that Moscow will resort to "extremely rigorous measures to ensure law, order and security in the North Caucasus region" if Shpigun was not released "shortly." Stepashin said that, despite assurances from the Chechen leadership that it is cracking down on crime and terrorist activities, the situation continues to deteriorate and the Russian leadership's tolerance is "exhausted."
Stepashin said Russia was considering unspecified military action or economic sanctions in retaliation for the abduction.
But observers in Moscow warn that any new aggression against Chechnya would play into the hands of the most radical Chechen leaders and would further undermine Maskhadov's grip on power. And after the meeting with Yeltsin yesterday, Stepashin seemed to back away from suggesting the use of force. He said Russia "supports and will support" Maskhadov as the legally elected president of Chechnya.
For his part, Maskhadov said in remarks broadcast by Chechen television last night that he is doing his "best to prevent war." Maskhadov, however, also warned Moscow against attacking Chechnya.
Maskhadov's words were echoed by Kremlin administration deputy head Oleg Sysuyev. He told Russian television that Russia has "such a bitter experience of large-scale military operations in Chechnya" that he did not think a single person could be found in the leadership who would support sending Russian soldiers to Chechnya "to carry out wide-scale operations."
Moscow and Chechnya have never settled the issue of Chechnya's political status following the disastrous 1994-96 war in which the breakaway republic won de-facto independence.
So far, no one has claimed responsibility or made any demands concerning General Shpigun. He is the most prominent Russian official to be kidnapped in Chechnya since last May, when Yeltsin's representative, Valentin Vlasov, was abducted and held for six months.
There are conflicting reports concerning Maskhadov's preliminary version of the abduction. According to the Interfax news agency, Maskhadov said today that the abduction was organized "following a decision of the Shura (council.)" The Shura was created earlier this year and is lead by some of Chechnya's military and political leaders, including Shamil Basayev and renegade military commander Salman Raduyev, who are in opposition to Maskhadov.
However, RFE/RL's Russian service correspondent in Grozny quotes Maskhadov's press secretary, Mairbek Vachagayev, as saying that Maskhadov's wording had been different.
Our correspondent quotes Vachegayev as confirming that in his televised speech last night, Maskhadov had urged Chechen security organs to "stop the anti-state activity of leaders who are trying to throw the Chechen people into the jaws of war."
However, our Grozny correspondent adds that Maskhadov's words -- quoted in the Interfax report -- that "if necessary, even Basayev should be arrested" should be interpreted as an emphatic statement and not as a direct suggestion of Basayev's involvement in the kidnapping.
The Chechen presidential press service issued a statement on Monday claiming that Russian intelligence had acted together with opposition Shura leaders to prepare the abduction.
Our Grozny correspondent reports that Maskhadov had earlier complained that his orders are either not, or only partly, being fulfilled by his security officials. Our correspondent reports that Maskhadov will listen to a report on results of Chechen officials' investigations into the kidnapping later today.
Stepashin has accused Basayev of being involved in the kidnapping. Basayev yesterday again denied any part in the abduction. He said he will search for the general himself and urged Shpigun's kidnappers to hand him over to the Shura as a "war criminal."
During the 1994-1996 war, Shpigun was supervising operations at Russia's infamous so-called "filtration camps" in Chechnya and in other Russian regions. Top Chechen commanders have reportedly prepared lists of Russian military and security officials who allegedly bear responsibility for the disappearance of Chechen fighters in the camps for retaliation. Shpigun is believed to figure on those lists.
Krasnoyarsk Governor Aleksandr Lebed -- who served as Security Council secretary in 1996 and signed a peace deal with Maskhadov, putting an end to hostilities -- yesterday joined other Russian politicians calling for the use of force to free the interior ministry general.
However, Lebed also criticized central authorities for "having done nothing" since the end of the war to establish peace in the Caucasus region. Lebed said the federal government did not fulfill promises included in the peace agreement, including providing funds for Chechnya's post-war reconstruction, a failure which Lebed argues has weakened Maskhadov.
(The Russian Service's Hassin Raduev contributed to this report from Grozny.)