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Chechnya: Focus On Second Russian Campaign (Part 3)

As Russia's second campaign in Chechnya hits its three-year mark, politicians and analysts say conditions are better than ever for Moscow to begin negotiations with Chechen separatist leaders. In the third and final part of our look at the situation in the war-torn republic, RFE/RL speaks with Radio Liberty journalist Andrei Babitskii, a veteran reporter on the war. Babitskii was arrested by Russian officials in Chechnya in January 2000 while covering the conflict. He was held for 40 days before being released and allowed to return to Moscow. More than two years later, he says the international community has failed to ease what is proving an increasingly intractable conflict.

Prague, 25 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- RFE/RL: Many are saying that now is the best time for negotiations between the government and Chechen rebels. Do you agree?

Andrei Babitskii: [Chechen rebel leader Aslan] Maskhadov transferred [Chechen] opposition into the hands of those with whom he previously had serious differences, specifically of an ideological nature. If Maskhadov had been the representative and symbol of a moderate center, he has now joined with [hard-line warlord Shamil] Basaev and his supporters. In general, I think this makes negotiations increasingly less effective, that is, in this case, each day, a situation that could result in [the possibility of] negotiations is growing dimmer.

RFE/RL: How much support is there within the Russian military for the Chechen war to continue?

Babitskii: I think this is not only a question of specific economic gain [for those profiting by the war]. There are certain political goals put forward by the army, which makes up the more conservative part of society. Naturally, the slogans of protecting territorial integrity and [taking] revenge for the defeat suffered in the first war are alive and generally have a lot of significance.

RFE/RL: How hard is it personally for President Vladimir Putin -- a person who came to power promising to see the war to an end militarily -- to change course?

Babitskii: I think that Putin, as a person who worked in the organs of the security services for a long time, can easily imagine what is really going on in Chechnya. It's not difficult for him to create a picture of the situation as a person tied to that [security] system. When people say that Putin is badly informed or misinformed about how things really are, I don't really believe that. I think he can actually brilliantly understand the nightmares being created in the Chechen Republic. And I suspect that, in general, the decision to undertake a policy of forceful oppression is more or less consciously made.

RFE/RL: You say the conditions for negotiations are deteriorating. But would you agree that they are nonetheless inevitable?

Babitskii: I think negotiations are unavoidable. Another matter is that Russia has essentially lost the ability to take part in a future reconstruction of Chechnya and has lost the ability to have good-neighborly relations. As far as I understand, after the first war, the majority of Chechens elected Maskhadov expecting that Russia and Chechnya would move closer together and that some form of friendly mutual coexistence would eventually be worked out. Today, I think the majority of Chechens don't link their own futures and those of their children to Russia.

RFE/RL: The international community says very little about Chechnya. Could it influence the situation if it spoke up?

Babitskii: Of course. If you consider the situation in which Putin's foreign-policy concept is oriented toward pushing Russia closer to the West, then, of course, the opinions of the international community about the actions of various politicians and military officials mean a lot to Russia. That so little is being said and done is, of course, unfortunate. I don't quite understand how commissions from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe that visit Chechnya and conduct monitoring find that the situation is getting better each time, because the situation isn't improving. An increasing number of various quasi-government structures are being created, but the situation concerning security problems for the civilian population hasn't changed a bit for the [recent] period of almost three years.

RFE/RL: How does Russian society in general perceive the war?

Babitskii: Every Russian person -- with the exception of those in Moscow -- more or less understands what's going on in Chechnya because the problems in the regions are quantitatively different but qualitatively the same. A person can be beaten half to death in a police station. That is, by essentially knowing the modus operandi of those working in law-enforcement structures, almost every Russian can more or less exactly imagine, if not the details, then the character of what's going on there.

RFE/RL: What are the prospects for Chechnya?

Babitskii: Part of the population picked one side and another part either secretly or openly picked another. There's essentially a civil war going on. Officials working for the Russian administration are being shot. I think that if some outside force doesn't hold Chechens back from major conflict, civil war will take a full-blown, [complete] form. So both Chechens and Russians have lost out in this war.

RFE/RL: You now live in the Czech Republic. How do you feel about the Russian government?

Babitskii: I think Putin in general is preparing a serious trap for Russian democracy, but not by those means that would have been predicted as characteristic for him at the beginning when he came to power. I think that the Chechen war is seriously eroding some of the standards for democracy. In that sense, I think he just isn't thinking about the future. He doesn't understand what kind of problem he's creating for Russia.

RFE/RL: Will you return to Chechnya?

Babitskii: I'm trying to. I've had various problems, including with the Russian authorities. I may now be coming to an agreement with some Chechen officials about going to, and working in, Chechnya. Maybe it will work this time. I'm preparing to do that in the immediate future."