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Putin Plays Hard Ball

With the Chechen conflict now entering its 12th month, is there evidence the rebels have bitten off more than they can chew?
By Mikhail Ivanov

A year ago last week, Chechen separatists committed a flagrant act of aggression against the Russian nation. Rebel units under the warlords Khattab and Shamil Basaev crossed the border into Dagestan, seized two local villages and declared the foundation of an Islamic state in the North Caucasus.


Some observers later claimed the raid had been deliberately staged by Russian special forces in order to give Boris Yeltsin a pretext for launching a second military campaign in Chechnya. Not one shred of evidence has since been produced to support this theory and there are no grounds whatsoever for giving the Chechens the benefit of the doubt.


The rebels' objective was clear - to slice away a large chunk of Russian territory from the Caucasus mountains to the Caspian Sea in a bid to establish an independent "bandit" enclave.


However, the warlords made several miscalculations. They failed to gauge the winds of change which were sweeping across Russia and eventually ushered the hard-line Vladimir Putin into the Kremlin. They also failed to anticipate the outrage of the Dagestani people who took the raids as a personal affront and joined the Russian army in driving back the Chechen fighters.


Haunted by past mistakes and humiliating defeat, the Russian government took a decision to stamp out Chechen "terrorism" once and for all by destroying the rebel bases, targeting the warlords and reinstating federal law in Chechnya to replace the arbitrary rule of the shariat.


Today, a year later, the campaign drags on. Waging a bitter partisan war in the southern mountains, the rebels continue to mount sporadic - or not so sporadic - attacks on federal forces as well as local civilians (reports came through last week that Isita Gairibekova, head of the Nozhay-Yurt district, survived a bomb attack on her home).


On the other side of the fence, Akhmad Kadyrov, the pro-Moscow head of the civilian administration, continues to battle for the hearts and minds of his fellow countrymen while his deputy, the charismatic yet controversial Beslan Gantamirov, pursues a hidden agenda of his own.


Clearly, the federal forces have failed to meet the deadlines set by their generals - and the casualties on both sides continue to be exaggerated or downplayed. Last week, the first deputy chief of the general staff, Valery Manilov, announced that 2,585 Russian servicemen have been killed over the last 12 months with 7,505 wounded. The general estimated the Chechen death toll at 14,000.


The daily newspaper Kommersant has wasted no time analysing the figures, cynically commenting that the Russian casualty rate is far higher than it was in the first war - 215 per month during the present campaign as opposed to 190 per month between 1994 and 1996.


But Kommersant failed to mention one vital statistic - which the Chechen Wahhabi extremists realise well enough. Over the past year, President Vladimir Putin has succeeded in halting the disintegration of the Russian Federation - the scythe has hit stone, as the saying goes.


As a result, the backbone of the separatist movement in Chechnya has been broken and the vision of an independent Ichkeria has been shattered. The rebel army has ceased to exist, Grozny is firmly in federal hands and organised resistance has been crushed.


The new Chechen tactics - kamikaze attacks, political assassinations, death threats to the "collaborators" - point towards a growing desperation in Aslan Maskhadov's ranks. Now the Kremlin can afford to make utterly unexpected proposals - such as reuniting Chechnya with Ingushetia, as was the case during the Soviet era. Even though Ingush president Ruslan Aushev has categorically rejected the idea (who would voluntarily agree to surrender the reins of power?) - even though the proposal is questionable per se - it is very significant that the Kremlin is prepared to moot the idea publicly.


The fact is that the situation in the country is changing dramatically. Slowly but surely, against all odds (see Mikhail Ivanov's article in CRS No. 42), Vladimir Putin is winning his battles on all fronts. The leaders of mutinous republics are keeping a low profile now that Putin has pushed his reforms of the Federation Council through parliament. One of the president's main demands - the right to dismiss regional governors - has been satisfied. Now even the most maverick heavyweights -- from Mintimer Shayimiev in Tatarstan to the once hostile Vladimir Yakovlev in St Petersburg -- are eager to please the balding judo champion.


And the oligarchs? After a recent round table held on the initiative of Boris Nemtsov, leader of the Russian Right, "they ceased to exist in their present form". At the meeting, Putin promised, politely but firmly, that the after-effects of privatisation will not be reviewed but that criminal investigations will continue.


Vladimir Gusinsky, the most vocal critic of the Chechen campaign, "got off with a bit of a scare" as the saying goes (his offices were ransacked and he spent a few traumatic days in Butyrskaya Prison).


Immediately after the magnate's arrest, both NTV and the daily newspaper Sevodnya - which are owned by Gusinsky - seethed with righteous indignation, decrying this latest attack on freedom of speech. But then, all of sudden, Sevodnya published a short article to the effect that charges against Gusinsky had been dropped and his property returned - a dozen lines based on an Interfax report - and not another word!


Meanwhile, Gusinsky was granted permission to leave Russia and joined his family in Spain. And, as if by magic, NTV's critique of the Kremlin in general - and its Chechen policies in particular - became noticeably less virulent. Even now, they are showing every sign of fading away completely.


This is not to condone Butyrskaya-style methods, but the fact remains: the new Kremlin leadership gets things done while the oligarchs are being forced to bend to the growing pressure from above.


At the same time, Boris Berezovsky - one of the architects of the humiliating Khasavyurt agreement, which brought an end to the first Chechen war - apparently took the hint and resigned from the State Duma - perhaps, as some Russian media sources have claimed, to seek political asylum in France or perhaps to stage what he calls a campaign of "constructive opposition" against the Kremlin.


Finally -- and most importantly -- the Chechen question is gradually disappearing from the international agenda. For fear of ruffling Putin's feathers, world leaders never once brought up the thorny issue at the Okinawa G-8 summit. And frankly, their motives are understandable -- it's one thing to snub an ailing comrade like Boris Yeltsin but no one seems too eager to cross swords with a man can throw his opponent in a matter of seconds -- as Putin demonstrated during a judo practice in Japan.


In sharp contrast to the first Chechen war, Russia now has a president who can stick up for his country - a fact which clearly delights the electorate. Shortly after the Okinawa summit, Putins' ratings crossed the 70 per cent mark (as opposed to 54 per cent just a few weeks before).


Even French President Jacques Chirac, who is reportedly exasperated by Russia's indifference to France's critique of the Chechen campaign, was forced to accept a gift from Putin - a book on the Kremlin, "lest France forgets that there is such a place on earth".


All this would indicate that the leading Western powers have finally recognised that Chechnya is Russia's own internal affair. And that, as mathematicians are fond of saying, "is something that needed to be demonstrated".


Mikhail Ivanov is executive editor of Russian Life, a bimonthly magazine published by Russian Information Services, Inc.


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