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Chechnya: Russian Lawmaker Issues Grave Warning

Sergei Kovalyev is a prominent Russian human rights activist and a deputy of the state Duma. Kovalyev spoke about the current Chechen war at a briefing last night at RFE/RL offices in Washington. He said the conflict was "close to genocide." And he predicted it will turn into an Afghan-type mini-guerrilla warfare. Senior Correspondent Frank T. Csongos reports:

Washington, 18 February 2000 (RFE/RL) -- A leading Russian human rights activist predicts the Chechen conflict will turn into a protracted guerrilla warfare.

The assessment was made last night (Thursday) by Sergei Kovalyev, a deputy of the Russian state Duma, at a press briefing held at RFE/RL in Washington.

Kovalyev said the Russian military offensive against the breakaway republic is "close to genocide" because of high civilian casualties inflicted as a result of relentless bombardment of populated areas.

In a subsequent interview with RFE/RL, Kovalyev amplified his comments this way.

"The future of Chechnya? So look at Afghanistan. You will see the future of Chechnya. We have created the situation by our own hands. A mini Afghanistan on the Russian soil. There will be a constant guerrilla war. All the time. And no one can win a guerrilla war. There is only one way to win a guerrilla war -- through genocide."

Kovalyev, who spent 10 years in the Soviet gulag for his dissident activities, said he believes gradually increasing Western pressure on Moscow might have softened Russia's initial tough stand on Chechnya.

He said the Russian political elite would have thought twice about waging such a brutal campaign against Chechnya had it been a concerted Western approach to counter it. But now, he says, it is too late to talk about such tactics.

Kovalyev also predicted that freedom of press in Russia will diminish as time goes by.

In the interview, he was asked about what could be done to facilitate the freedom of RFE/RL correspondent Andrei Babitsky, who was arrested by Russian military authorities in Chechnya a month ago for allegedly not having proper accreditation to cover the war. Babitsky's whereabouts are not known. Moscow says he was exchanged for captured Russian soldiers.

"I think that the public opinion in Russia - the so-called human rights active public - and the international community have one standard. They have to knock at every door and express their concern all the time. They have to put pressure on authorities all the time. Moscow authorities in this situation with Andrei Babitsky are constantly trying to hide the ants in the water -- we shouldn't let them do it."

Kovalyev also said that the Chechen war has given to the rapid political rise of Vladimir Putin, picked by then Russian President Boris Yeltsin last year to become prime minister. Yeltsin resigned Dec. 31 and was succeeded by Putin, a former KGB operative, to be acting president.

Russia is scheduled to have presidential elections late next month. Putin is viewed as the front-runner to become the next leader of Russia.

Kovalyev says Putin came from nowhere in the political spectrum and now has a chance to govern Russia for years to come because he is identified with a popular war.

He said Putin is viewed by many voters as a man who can re-establish law and order in Russia.