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Chechnya: Russians Fail To Reconstruct And Reintegrate

After imposing a reform of Russia's regional governments that brings them under greater Kremlin control, President Vladimir Putin's administration is now looking at another crucial regional problem -- how to reconstruct Chechnya after nine months of war. RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini reports.

Moscow, 26 May 2000 (RFE/RL) -- In the mountains of Chechnya, Russia's nine-month-old war has settled into a routine of offensives and counter-offensives peppered by bloody rebel raids, Russian arrests and what might be either half-hearted or behind-the-scenes attempts at negotiations.

To all appearances, Russian authorities are still having a hard time containing what they describe as a great threat to the federation's integrity. They also do not seem to be getting very far in what was designed as the "carrot" to match their military "stick" -- a strategy to win over Chechen civilians in the major part of the republic now officially under Russian control.

The Russians had promised to provide Chechens with the basic needs which the chaotic regime of President Aslan Maskhadov had previously been unable to deliver -- pensions, schooling, medical care, and food. But so far, Moscow's grand plans for Chechnya's "reconstruction" have produced very little. RFE/RL correspondents in the region report that whole Chechen villages continue to move into neighboring Ingushetia, fleeing their destroyed homes and fields.

Russian officials say that the republic's reconstruction is underway -- under the direction of Nikolai Koshman, the highest federal authority in Chechnya. This week (May 23), however, Koshman's efforts almost came to an abrupt end when separatist rebels shot at the helicopter in which he -- together with his entire "reconstruction commission" -- was travelling. The helicopter was fired on near the Argun gorge, which Russian forces have been trying to bring under control for months.

A more long-term problem is the cost of providing the population with basic needs, which may be hard for Moscow to meet. The Anti-War Committee, a Russian association of human-rights organization that includes Memorial, argues that the government is actually planning to reduce social expenses to finance its military actions and -- eventually, it is said -- reconstruction. The committee says that the state is already scrimping on many subsidies to Chechens.

The Anti-War Committee's Lyudmilla Vakhnina told RFE/RL that a bill recently adopted by the State Duma in a first reading would reduce payments to victims of the 1986 nuclear disaster at Chornobyl as well as to war veterans and students. She says the draft law could be aimed at redirecting these resources toward the Chechen war effort:

"We are always being told that everything's fine, that oil prices are going up, that our economic situation is stable -- [even] that there's economic growth and that we can afford [a] war that [allegedly] has no impact on the budget. The result is that the most vulnerable, deprived and already poorest parts of the budget -- education, culture [and other non-military items] -- are subject to further reductions. Where will this budget money go? Perhaps to the reconstruction in Chechnya. But first of all, as we know from our experience during the first [Chechen] war, money is stolen on a gigantic scale."

The threat to Chechnya's reconstruction posed by corruption and embezzlement is not denied by Russian officials. Speaking to RFE/RL last week, even the president's adviser on Chechen affairs -- Sergey Yastrzhembsky -- abandoned his usual diplomatic language and admitted that Moscow must resort to a military financial administration if it doesn't want to lose all its investments in Chechnya:

"Calling [Chechnya] a [financial] black hole is a correct expression. [That's why] an effort is underway to create a system of control of the coffers by paying out the pensions through the financial departments of military authorities."

Nonetheless, one recent newspaper report said that Moscow is due to pump some $286 million (7.5 billion rubles) into Chechnya by the end of the year. According to the Russian daily "Segodnya," the money will finance the establishment of a satellite communications network and the construction of sports facilities. But, the same report said, no overall, detailed reconstruction plan for Chechnya actually exists.

Russian authorities continue to have difficulty in imposing law and order -- let alone handling ambitious projects -- in the republic. The recently appointed Koshman is battling for control over Chechnya's only chief source of revenue -- oil. This week (May 23), he lashed out at law-enforcement agencies for not preventing the theft of the republic's oil. Tapping crude from the pipe or directly from the ground has been a classic revenue booster for both ordinary civilians selling gasoline along the republic's roads and for big-time criminals.

Nor, apparently, can Koshman rely on support from the pro-Russian Chechen militia. In an interview with the daily "Kommersant" last week, Bislan Gantamirov --the former commander of Chechen pro-Moscow troops -- painted a somber picture of the militia's real working conditions. Gantamirov said that of 2,500 local Interior Ministry militia, only 700 had actually received a rifle and less than half were paid their salary. Gantamirov also pointed to possible discrimination between Chechen and Russian law-enforcement agents, saying Russian Interior Ministry forces receive $33 a day, Chechens only half that amount.

While Gantamirov's talk of discrimination may be largely motivated by his own political ambitions, it's clear that the apparent priorities of the Russian authorities lack political finesse. The daily "Moskovsky Komsomolets" reported last week that in Khankala -- the home to Russian military headquarters, located just outside Chechnya -- the army has shifts working day and night to restore whole apartment blocks and rebuild a playground. The work is being undertaken on behalf of the 15,000-strong 42nd Motorized Infantry Division, the backbone of Russian occupation troops in Chechnya.