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Russia: Concerns About Chechnya Rise Again

Boston, 24 June 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Recent violence in and around Chechnya has renewed questions about the causes and effects of Russia's war with the republic and the risk that conflict may again spin out of control.

The wave of attacks this month appears to be the worst since Russia withdrew its forces from Chechnya in 1996. Last week, seven policemen and Russian guards were killed by renegade groups in incidents on Chechnya's borders.

Russia has threatened to retaliate with strikes against the renamed Republic of Ichkeria, where bombings and shootings have become daily occurrences, both on the border and within the territory itself. The republic seems to be slipping back into the chaos from which it emerged only briefly with the end of its 21-month war.

The most recent outbreaks followed a meeting between President Aslan Maskhadov and Russian Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin on June 11. On the same day, Chechnya's national guard tried to take control of its 150-kilometer section of the Baku-Novorossiisk oil pipeline after repeated thefts and disruptions this year. But three days later, the pipeline was blown up, and Russia suspended its shipments from Baku.

After more than four years, the role of oil in the conflict over Chechnya remains a major but unsettled question. The republic unilaterally declared independence in 1991, but Russia's invasion three years later came just three months after Azerbaijan signed its landmark Caspian oil contract with the Azerbaijan International Operating Company, setting off the race for pipeline routes. Most experts believe the pipeline issue was at least a contributory cause of the war.

Russia's effort to retain control over Chechnya and the Caspian's oil resources became inseparable, although each had its own motivations. As a sign of oil's importance, Moscow's first task after the war was to negotiate a transit deal and rebuild the pipeline. Reconstruction of the line remains one of the few commitments to Chechnya that has been honored since hostilities ceased. But the pipeline route has turned out to be both a blessing and a curse.

Major tensions have continued over Russia's late payments for pipeline fees and security costs. Illegal siphoning and sabotage led to repeated disruptions of deliveries to Novorossiisk this year before the total shutdown last week.

Much of the current conflict seems to have causes that are totally separate from oil. Renegade field commanders, who were only loyal to the late President Djokhar Dudaev, were only temporarily tamed by Maskhadov's attempts to involve them in his government. Even without the war, Chechnya's underworld would have continued to be a source of lawlessness. Kidnapping has simply become a business in a devastated land.

Maskhadov has also become vulnerable because of his measure of support from the Russian government since May 1997, when he signed a peace agreement with President Boris Yeltsin. The problem has grown since Stepashin became prime minister after his role in the war as interior minister. A promised meeting between Yeltsin and Maskhadov is only likely to aggravate charges that he has compromised on independence.

But the question of oil and its role in the conflict may still be the toughest to resolve. It remains unclear whether Chechnya would have been better off if it never had a pipeline route from the Caspian. Was it a cause of the country's destruction or an asset that allowed it to bargain for income and autonomy? The answer may be critical to all the other countries and territories in the region that Caspian pipelines must cross.

For most of this year, Russia appeared to be carefully balancing its interests in keeping the Novorossiisk route open in spite of the costs of sabotage and disruption, hoping to compete with a main export pipeline along a similar route. But reports that the AIOC consortium may double the capacity of its new pipeline through Georgia with extra pumps in response to the Chechnya disruptions seem to have persuaded Russia that its route was doomed to failure.

Now that Russia has apparently given up on the pipeline and Caspian oil is flowing through Georgia instead, Moscow may now feel there is no obstacle to sealing off Chechnya rather than dealing with the problems. A report this month that Russian Interior Ministry troops are building a moat on the border suggests this may be the case.

Caspian nations may also watch this experiment with interest, in case isolation becomes the new alternative to control.