Russia Sweeps Aside Peace Offers In Race For A 'Glorious' Victory

Chechen leader Maskhadov's offer of talks has been rebuffed. Moscow is aiming to settle the "Chechen problem" once and for all.

Russia Sweeps Aside Peace Offers In Race For A 'Glorious' Victory

Chechen leader Maskhadov's offer of talks has been rebuffed. Moscow is aiming to settle the "Chechen problem" once and for all.

The second Russia-Chechnya war is well under way and gaining momentum, bringing a rain of artillery and airstrikes down on the territory of the self-proclaimed Chechen Republic of Ichkeria. Roads, hospitals, water and power supplies that survived the 1994-1995 Russian invasion, or have been rebuilt, are being destroyed again.

Under the pretext of creating a so-called 'security zone' against terrorism, Russian ground troops have entered Chechnya and occupied the Chechen steppe all the way down to the Terek river, about 20 kilometres north of the capital Grozny.

Scores of thousands are fleeing their advance, mostly to impoverished Ingushetia, on Chechnya's western border; the Migration Service of Ingushetia say 140,000 Chechen refugees in their area alone are in urgent need of food, warm clothes and cover from the approaching winter. Another 12,000, mostly ethnic Russians, have been registered in North Ossetia.

The Chechen armed forces, barring a few small squads monitoring the advance and reconnoitering the roads to Grozny have pulled back to the city and its suburbs. There they say they are preparing to rebuff the Russian invaders once again.

President Aslan Maskhadov has declared martial law but still holds hope of persuading the Russian authorities and the international community to halt the assaults and talk seriously about a Chechen regional peace process.

He promises to "take concrete governmental action to declare war on all forms of armed terrorism," and allow "special observers" to monitor its compliance. In return he wants Russia "to halt all military activities, first of all Russian air raids, bombing and artillery fire, and withdrawal Russian federal forces from the entire territory of Ichkeria".

He was "100 per cent sure" the conflict will end in peace talks, he told the Russian newspaper Vremya MN, "but thousands of soldiers will die first." But as expected the Russian authorities rebuffed his offer. Russian premier Vladimir Putin says negotiations with Maskhadov are impossible before he hands over those whom Russia considers terrorists. He told reporters: "my attitude is positive, but I would set the priorities differently: first of all the terrorists, guilty of attacks on peaceful villages in Dagestan and explosions in residential areas of Moscow, Volgodonsk and Buinaksk should be handed over".

Whether this is practically achievable or not is by the by.

Maskhadov was powerless to stop the armed factions led by 'terrorist' Shamil Basayev raiding into the mountainous Botlikh region of Dagestan in early August, discovering that the opposition had far more firepower at its disposal than his own armed forces. And he denies Chechen involvement in the Moscow, Volgodonsk and Buinaksk bombings.

In any case Maskhadov met Moscow's earlier demands that he accept responsibility for halting Basayev's incursions, only to be brushed aside. The invasion of Chechnya went ahead anyway, simply backed by new demands that are - a priori - unfulfillable.

Putin claims that the principal political issues should only be resolved by political means, but he also vows never to "conduct negotiations with terrorists" and maintains that there is only one way to a settlement in Chechnya - "to eliminate terrorism".

This warlike stance was backed by Russian Security Council deputy secretary Vladimir Vorobiov on October 12, backed by defence minister Igor Sergeev who described the ultimate goal of the military campaign as "the liberation of Chechnya from terrorists".

Since almost any Chechen supporter of freedom and independence from Russia today falls under the definition of "terrorist", it seems that talk is not on the agenda and Moscow has decided to pursue the game to the very end.

But in a further twist in the misery of Chechnya, the game is not about north Caucasus 'terrorism' or peace at all, but about power in the Kremlin.

By demonstrating firmness in Chechnya Putin is rapidly gaining political weight in Russia. Latest polls indicate his approval ratings are up fivefold, taking up to second place behind ex-premier Yevgeny Primakov and his All Russia-Fatherland party bloc.

Everybody is falling over themselves in the race to be seen as tough on terrorism, even figures better known as doves such as economic liberal Grigory Yavlinsky, former premier Sergei Kiryenko and leading opposition figure Anatoly Chubais. The latter, who currently heads the Russian energy system, has even ordered the cutting off of power supplies to Chechnya.

Russian politicians seem to believe that the atmosphere is right for a forceful resolution of the Chechen problem. A wave of murders and kidnappings, particularly of Western journalists and specialists, has weakened the international community's will to challenge Russian policy.

In Russia itself the view that Chechens are criminal by nature is deeply entrenched. Basayev's incursion into Dagestan, backed by a Saudi-born veteran of the Afghan war known as 'Khattab' was presented by the Kremlin as a bid to carve an Islamic radical state out of the Chechnya and Dagestan, from where the Islamists would 'export terrorism' across Russia.

This fear and prejudice, plus the shock of the devastation caused by the city apartment bombs last month, leaves a clear majority of the Russian public ready to support a full-scale military operation against Chechnya.

And since the Russian military command has openly blamed politicians for stopping them from finishing off the Chechen rebels in 1995-1996, very few, if any, of the Kremlin leaders will dare show the sobriety or common sense needed to take responsibility for ordering them to stop. Thus, the Chechen president's outstretched hand is left hanging in mid-air.

The situation of Maskhadov himself is extremely complicated. Obviously, he realises that the activities of renegade commanders like Basayev, Khattab and Salman Raduyev - provoke more trouble than Chechnya can handle and seriously jeopardise the viability of his putative independent state of Ichkeria.

Maskhadov cannot afford the risk of triggering a full-scale Russian invasion, but at the same time he must address the need to combine all the country's military formations, even the openly criminal ones, into one common front.

Hence, the dual nature of Maskhadov's behaviour. On the one hand, he offers peaceful negotiations to the Russian authorities; on the other he steps beyond his authority as president to dismiss the Chechen Muslim mufti who refused to declare 'gazavat' ('holy war') against the Russians, just to please members of the country's influential Wahabi Islamist sect.

So far, the situation is developing according to the old scenario, although it differs from 1994-1995 in that Russian authorities are acting more cautiously.

Occupied Chechen territories undergo so-called 'cleaning', which, in practice, means putting the entire male population into assessment camps, to weed out suspects. Attempts are also being made to sidestep Maskhadov in a more overt way, by trying to ease in a Moscow puppet administration. At the beginning of October, Putin introduced journalists to a group of parliamentary deputies, elected by falsified votes during the Russian occupation in summer 1996, presenting them as "legitimate authorities" in the Chechen territory.

But the winter is approaching. Well-armed rebels have fortified their positions in the mountains. Any attempt by Russian troops to proceed further will bring about huge losses, which, by the way, are quite considerable already.

Tens of armoured vehicles and several fixed-wing and helicopter aircraft have been reported destroyed. Turpal-Ali Atgereev, commander of the north-eastern Chechen military formations, has told the New York Times that the Russian troops have already lost more than 200 troops.

And Chechen field commander Idris Gaibov maintains that some 100 Russian soldiers were killed during a two-day battle for the tiny village of Chervlionnaya. Aslanbek Ismailov, as quoted by the New York Times, announces that "this is just the beginning - if that's Allah's will, a sea of blood - not Chechen blood - will be shed soon".

One thing is clear, in spite of enormous advantage in power, Russian authorities can not count on an easy victory, and, one way or another, as Maskhadov has already said it is "100 per cent certain" they will have to negotiate peace with the Chechens sooner or later.

Rasim Musabekov is a political analyst in Baku.

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