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In Search Of Another 'Small Victorious War'

The message from the Kremlin PR machine on its latest campaign in the north Caucasus is simple. "We'll win it this time"
Russian Public Television last week showed happy and enthusiastic soldiers kickboxing and officers instructing troops bound for Chechnya that their mission is "once and for all to wipe out bandit formations".

"This war is different from the last war in Chechnya because this time the army and the people are united," a sombre commentator intoned. A young conscript, who didn't look a day over 18-years-old, gazed into the camera. "I just want to say hello to the motherland and tell my mother not to worry," he said. "Everything will be fine."

On one hand, this war is different from Russia's last ill-fated adventure in Chechnya. In 1994-96, Moscow fought a bloody and unsuccessful war to keep independence-minded Chechnya from breaking free of Moscow's orbit. The public and the media, at first sceptical of the campaign, became increasingly hostile as combat deaths increased and reports of atrocities and carpet bombings dominated news broadcasts.

At the end of the day, nearly 100,000 died, mostly civilians and inexperienced conscripts. By August 1996, Moscow was forced into a humiliating troop withdrawal. Since then, Chechnya has run its own affairs but no other country recognises its independence.

Aslan Maskhadov, who was elected Chechnya's post-war president in January 1997, signed a peace treaty with Russia's President Boris Yeltsin in May of that year.

Maskhadov, however, has been unable to control his mountainous republic. Armed gangs roam the countryside, running gruesome kidnapping rings that have targeted Russians as well as Westerners. Radical militants impose a strict form of Islamic law.

And in August, Chechen field commander Shamil Basayev launched raids into neighbouring Dagestan, with the stated goal of establishing an independent Islamic state free from Moscow's grasp.

Maskhadov, who sought good relations with Russia, disavowed Basayev's campaign, but was powerless to do anything about it. By the time Russia started bombing late last month, Chechnya had lost most of the good will the republic had gained from the international community - and to a lesser extent from Russia's dwindling liberal intelligentsia.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is talking tough, saying that Russian forces will destroy Chechen rebels wherever they may be. "If they go to the toilet, we will destroy them in the outhouse," Putin said in an oft-quoted remark. Liberal politicians like Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky and ex-Deputy Prime Minister Boris Nemtsov - both harsh critics of the 1994-96 war - have come out in favour of the airstrikes.

Russian generals now hold NATO-style press conferences where they display aerial "before and after" photographs of strategic targets like television towers and airports.

But despite the slick public relations, doubts exist. Eyewitness reports from Chechnya say that Russian airstrikes are doing little more than killing civilians.

Maskhadov says that since the bombing campaign began, some 400 civilians have been killed and 1,000 have had their homes destroyed. Over 100,000 refugees have poured over the border to neighbouring Ingushetia.

Renowned human rights activist and federal lawmaker Sergei Kovalyov has accused Moscow of carrying out an ethnic cleansing campaign - similar to that of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic - against Chechens.

"Russia is using NATO's methods to realise Milosevic's ideology," said Kovalyov.

Military analysts also say that other than the spin, this conflict is actually not very different from Moscow's last ill-fated war in Chechnya. "The Chechens have become stronger and the Russian military has become weaker," says Moscow-based defence analyst Pavel Felgenhauer.

And Chechnya's political elite, badly divided before the war started, is uniting against Moscow. Basayev has announced that he and Maskhadov - once bitter political foes - have made amends. Meanwhile, as Russian troops move into Chechnya, the controversial ground campaign has begun to divide Russia.

"Five years later, a tragedy repeats itself," wrote the newspaper Obshchaya Gazeta. "The cost, as it was then, is thousands of lives." An opinion poll released last week showed that 57 percent of Moscow's residents oppose airstrikes against Chechnya - now in their eighth day.

Ex-Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, the country's leading presidential candidate, has come out against a ground invasion. Sergei Stepashin, another ex-Prime Minister who was one of the architects of Russia's disastrous 1994-96 war, warned against a ground war, saying it could lead to "political catastrophe."

"Before taking a decision on a possible ground operation in Chechnya, one should thoroughly analyse the military operations in Chechnya in 1994-96, even if this experience is bitter," Stepashin declared.

Meanwhile, some analysts claim the war is an elaborate public relations scam to boost Putin's popularity. "The goal of this operation is clearly to increase Putin's popularity rating with a small victorious war," said Vladimir Pribylovsky of the Panorama research centre.

"They want to keep the situation in the Caucasus as it is but demonstrate to the population that Russia can show its teeth." Pribylovsky said that the Kremlin was not interested in solving the question of Chechnya's final status or eliminating Basayev, adding that the current situation suits their political purposes. "They need Basayev and Chechnya to frighten people into supporting the current regime," he said.

Russian media have hyped an apparent rise in Putin's popularity. NTV television reported on Sunday that the proportion of Russians who would vote for Putin in presidential elections has increased from two to seven per cent over the past week.

"This is a pre-planned public relations campaign," said Yevgeny Volk of the Heritage Foundation. "The Kremlin and the government badly need a significant victory. This sounds cynical but Russian politics is cynical." As for Chechnya, Volk said the Kremlin's goal is to eventually install a docile pro-Moscow government in the republic.

Last Friday, Putin said the Kremlin no longer recognised Maskhadov's government, adding that the only legitimate authority in Chechnya is an obscure pro-Moscow parliament elected in June 1996 when Russian troops occupied about half of Chechnya, including the capital Grozny.

In an interview published in the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets, Maskhadov insisted that Chechnya was not behind an Islamic uprising in neighbouring Dagestan that has been raging since early August.

"There is no Chechen connection even in the developments in Dagestan, understand me," said Maskhadov. "First of all the roots of all this should be sought in Moscow where a dirty political game is being played out around who will or will not become [Yeltsin's] successor. Chechens are simply pawns."

Maskhadov confirmed reports in various media that Kremlin-connected tycoon Boris Berezovsky has been in close contact with Basayev and other Chechen militants. "There is information about meetings and money," he declared. "Berezovsky is a person who poses a big threat both to Russia and to Chechnya."

Brian Whitmore is a staff reporter for The Moscow Times and a Moscow-based freelance correspondent for the Boston Globe.

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