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Caucasus: Kidnapping Of Russian General Presents Complications For Chechen President

Moscow, 17 March 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The abduction of Russian General Gennady Shpigun earlier this month has put Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov in a very difficult position.

On one hand, it has heightened tensions between Moscow and Grozny, drawing threats from Moscow of unspecified retaliatory measures. On the other, it has emphasized the ongoing power struggle among Maskhadov and some of the men who fought with him against Russian troops in the 1994-1996 conflict, including warlord Shamil Basaev.

Although initially hesitant, Maskhadov is becoming more outspoken in his attacks against his political opponents and what he alleges is their role in Shpigun's abduction. However, during an exclusive interview with RFE/RL's Russian service, aired at the weekend, Maskhadov also said the abduction is linked to events taking place in Moscow and is aimed at discrediting him and the Chechen people. Following a nationwide television address (March 15), tens of thousands of Chechens converged in the capital, Grozny (March 16), to hear Maskhadov speak about the situation in the breakaway republic in the aftermath of Shpigun's abduction. Shpigun was the representative of Russia's interior ministry in Chechnya.

Addressing the crowd in the central Freedom Square, Maskhadov said Chechnya risks descending into anarchy. He accused his political opponents, including Basaev, of pushing the breakaway republic into chaos and lawlessness by attempting to establish a parallel Islamic government in a bid to erode his power.

Without mentioning names, Maskhadov added that his opponents are backed by "outside forces" and are trying to lead the Chechen people into a "dead-end".

In his interview with RFE/RL, Maskhadov blamed former deputy Security Council Secretary --also former CIS Executive Secretary-- Boris Berezovsky for playing a role in bringing about the current hostage crisis in Chechnya. Berezovsky is believed to have paid for the liberation of some hostages in the past. In a reference to the role played by the tycoon-turned-politician, Maskhadov said "everything that happens in Moscow to a certain extent is reflected here. All those Berezovsky trips, all those bags of money, playing with criminals, as well as opponents [of the legitimally elected president] leads right to this result." He added that he had spoken "about this [in the past] and warned [of this danger] many times."

In the interview, Maskhadov also talked at length about his relations with military commanders who are now opposing his policies.

This rally in Grozny is the latest of a series of attempts by Maskhadov to win over the support of the Chechen people in the ongoing power struggle in the republic. But in his interview with RFE/RL, Maskhadov said Chechnya is not on the brink of civil war:

"I've said again and again, there won't be civil war [in Chechnya] or an Afghan-like conflict. I think that the most important thing we achieved after the war [with Russia] is that there are no preconditions for such a war."

Maskhadov told RFE/RL that he and his political opponents have mainly "disagreements" and "differences of approach." And he added that he is not saying that Basaev should be accused of kidnapping Shpigun. But he added that those behind recent kidnappings have had a political aim:

"Simply, they needed to discredit [our government], to [show] our government as weak and finally to discredit our people. These kidnappings are the most disgraceful occurrence for our people."

Chechnya has run its own affairs since Russian troops left at the end of 1996, but no country has recognized its claim of independence. Moscow continues to say that Chechnya is a part of Russia even though it has no control over events there. But Maskhadov's authority also seems in question as he has been unable to stem a wave of kidnappings and other crimes that have swept Chechnya in the last few years.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin urged his government (March 15) to step up efforts to secure the release of Shpigun and Moscow has threatened to use force if the general is not freed soon. Maskhadov has promised to free the general, who was kidnapped March 5, but has warned Moscow against using force.

Maskhadov told the rally he hung up on Primakov during a recent telephone conversation to protest Moscow's threats.