Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Russia's Second Chance In Chechnya

The Chechen authorities have lost the peoples' trust and most just want the anarchy to end - even if that means bringing the old rulers back. That gives Russia a second chance to take and hold Chechnya - but only if it is better behaved this time.
By Kharon Deniev
Today's current crisis in Chechnya dates back to 1996 and unfinished business in Khasavyurt, Dagestan, where Russia signed a humiliating 20-point accord to bring a disastrous 20-month war against Chechen separatists to a halt.

The aim then seemed to be to give Russia breathing space before taking another stab at the 'Chechen problem'. Moscow's post-Khasavyurt conduct confirms this. Russia has failed to fulfil even one of the 50 or more agreements signed and obligations agreed during the negotiations.

Moscow alternately blamed this on lack of money, Grozny's "unconstructive attitude", fraud by organised crime, and mainly, Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov's inability to control Chechnya or contain the heavily armed criminal gangs that roam Grozny.

The strength of these forces had indeed become a problem for the weak authorities in Grozny. Maskhadov was powerless to stop armed factions led Shamil Basayev raiding into Dagestan in early August, discovering that the opposition had far more firepower at its disposal than his own armed forces.

The Chechen President was not even in control of the children's playground just 300 metres from the presidential palace where throughout this summer criminal leaders would gather every evening to sort things out among themselves.

Invariably, heavily armed as they were, the meetings often ended in shoot-outs in sight of students from Grozny University. Eyewitness accounts of one recent gun battle in front of the presidential palace saw at least one student used as a human shield and the gangsters trapping innocent passers-by in the crossfire.

The ordinary resident in Grozny is outraged by this continual lawlessness, and many are beginning to see the return of the old Russian-led order as the only way out. As the impression grew each day in many people's minds that the current Chechen authorities are unable or uninterested in restoring order and encouraging basic civil society development, so too has their belief that sooner or later the Russian authorities would have to become involved again.

But the resolution of the Chechen crisis depends wholly upon how the federal forces conduct themselves during these first crucial days. If they manage to find a common language with the pro-Russian majority of the Chechen population, the chances for success will significantly increase.

But if Russian forces continue their airstrikes and bombardment of villages in a heavy handed attempt to rid them of several dozen fighters, leading inevitably to a large number of civilian casualties, Moscow will get bogged down in Chechnya for many years to come.

At this stage there appear to be three possible outcomes to Russia's invasion of Chechnya:

First, the most optimistic: that with minimal destruction and losses among the troops and civilian population, Russia restores its authority over several regions of Chechnya. It then shows the population - battered by chaos, lawlessness and war - the advantages of Russian governance, enabling people to live and work without danger, receive hospital treatment and send their children to school. In this scenario, restoring control over the remaining regions of Chechnya is achieved only slowly.

Second, the most likely outcome: through large losses of civilians and soldiers and by force and fear, Russia forces the Chechens to capitulate and accept the new authorities. Many villages will be destroyed and the population will flee their homes in panic. This will please Moscow and the army chiefs, who will be able to claim a fast victory. But this outcome will solve nothing.

The criminal gangs that were out kidnapping yesterday but who fight the Russians today will become the Chechen national heroes of tomorrow. Moscow will have no hope of salvaging its reputation among the Chechens. Yet this is the most tempting option for Russia's military commanders. For Russia as a whole it is the least desirable.

The third scenario: bogged down in Chechnya, Moscow realises that some form of new accommodation must be reached with Maskhadov and a new legitimacy is granted him, complete with a new agreement and new conditions. While this is the most desirable scenario for the Chechen political elite and for certain circles in Russia, everything depends on the resolve of all parties to conclude a lasting peace and develop a proper sense of security for the ordinary Chechen people.

This resolve has been somewhat lacking among all parties in recent years and will be a lot to expect from anyone after months of the kind of war we now have underway.

Dr Kharon Deniev is a human rights advocate and senior member of the Chechen-Ingush community of Stavropol.

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