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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Chechen Quagmire

Five months of open warfare in Chechnya have passed and the most dire predictions about its character have turned out to be drastic underestimations. Even the government's initial goals of securing the Chechen lowlands and arresting Dzhokhar Dudayev and his associates, which spokesmen assured us could be done quickly and easily, remain unrealized.

Now the most arduous part of the policy -- the guerrilla war in the mountains and among the ruins of the region's shattered cities -- looms inevitably ahead. The Kremlin-appointed head of the Chechen administration, Salambek Khadzhiyev, faces real difficulties concerning the restoration of order and a tolerable standard of living in Grozny and other parts of Chechnya. Clearly, no sufficient funding for restoration will ever be allocated by the Russian government and the monies that are allocated will quickly be stolen away. The people staffing the new administration have, in general, been recruited from among Dudayev's supporters. Inevitably, all the negative features of the old regime will be passed along to the new one.

Khadzhiyev, who agreed to take over the Chechen administration at the moment the government of President Boris Yeltsin decided to invade, is viewed as responsible for inviting the Russian Army in and for all the blood and devastation that ensued. Far from enjoying popular support, he must take measures to protect himself from revenge.

On the other hand, Ruslan Khasbulatov, the former speaker of the Supreme Soviet, is patiently waiting. He condemned Russian participation in the assault by anti-Dudayev forces on Nov. 26 and has since faded from the political scene. His reputation is clean in the eyes of Chechens who do not support Dudayev, and he could well win a popular vote. There has been wide speculation that Yeltsin ordered the assault largely out of fear that, if the matter were left in the hands of the Chechens, Khasbulatov would become the republic's president.

In the meantime, neither side has been able to propose a settlement that would be acceptable to the other. Dudayev demands the withdrawal of Russian forces, which would be tantamount to Yeltsin admitting defeat. Yeltsin demands the disarmament of Dudayev's forces and he has not put forward a single political initiative since the war began.

Yeltsin stubbornly refuses to negotiate with Dudayev, even though Russian generals have been talking with the chief of Dudayev's general staff, Aslan Maskhadov, concerning cease-fires and POW exchanges. Perhaps Russian intelligence believes that it is possible to split Maskhadov away from Dudayev and conclude a separate agreement with him. I believe, though, that such hopes are unjustified and, even if they did prove correct, it would not prevent the coming guerrilla war.

The only way to do so is to open direct negotiations with Dudayev concerning the special status of Chechnya within the Russian Federation, the temporary recognition of the current Chechen leadership pending new elections, the punishment of those guilty of human rights violations during the Chechen campaign and the resignation of the highest officials responsible for the war together with public apologies.

Beginning last summer, when the federal authorities first began providing indirect military support to the armed anti-Dudayev opposition, the situation has unfolded exactly as might have been expected. "Now that Russia has become entangled," Umar Avturkhanov, head of the anti-Dudayev opposition, told me in September 1994, "the rest is guaranteed." This former militia official was wiser than Yeltsin's learned advisors, who believed that they could balance on the edge of war and use demonstrations of force to win concessions. However, once the war machine was triggered, it accelerated according to its own laws.

Very soon, Yeltsin found himself fighting against an entire nation, and the only way to wage such a war is with scorched-earth tactics. The destruction of Chechen towns, the bombardment of villages and punitive expeditions were inevitable. As the guerrilla war continues, the Chechen population will have every reason to believe that, if their resistance fails, they will face mass deportation as they did in 1944 -- or something even worse.

Yeltsin made the decision to use force in Chechnya under the pressure of growing nationalist sentiment in Russia in an effort to boost his sagging popularity ratings. He also yielded to this sentiment in a number of other policy decisions, all of which served largely to further strengthen that very nationalism. The massacre of civilians in the village of Samashki, which can only be compared to the tactics of the Nazis during World War II, is the bloody result of the fascistic line cultivated in the capital and only bodes further outbursts, perhaps with anti-Semitic motives replacing anti-Chechen ones

For now, the capitulation of the authorities implies their identification with these extreme nationalist and fascist forces, which is particularly alarming given the general indifference of public opinion both inside and outside Russia. Even many of those who speak out against the Chechen war really want to see victory achieved as soon as possible so that the entire incident can be quickly forgotten. This explains why they are willing to turn their backs on crimes against humanity and are happy to be deceived by official assurances that the war is already over or soon will be.

The best illustration of this was the willingness of Western leaders to participate in Moscow's Victory Day celebration after being given assurances that the fighting would be kept to a minimum during their visit. Although the West still claims that Yeltsin is the best guarantor of democracy, stability and reform, the crimes of Chechnya prove that this simply is not true.

Anatoly Shabad is a deputy in the State Duma from Russia's Choice. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.