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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chechens Insist on Statehood

SOUTHERN CHECHNYA -- As the Chechen fighters hold their positions in the capital Grozny, their political leaders are standing as firmly by their demand for a sovereign independent state.

Sitting in the courtyard of a village house, 25 kilometers south of Grozny, near where Russian and Chechen generals were hammering out a cease-fire agreement, the vice president of the self-declared Chechen republic of Ichkeria, Said-Khasan Abumuslimov, laid out the Chechen leadership's political position.

"Our position is to stop the war and be an independent state from Russia," he said. "We have been an independent country de facto for four withdrawal, elections and then a referendum on independence.

Abumuslimov, a historian and member of parliament elected in 1991 when Chechnya declared independence from Russia, is vice president to President Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, who took over after the first elected Chechen president Dzhokhar Dudayev was killed in April.

But despite the loss of the flamboyant air force general, Dudayev, the Chechen political and military leaders have remained united in their demands, only softening on one issue, that Russia should recognize Chechen independence.

"Since people are dying for that -- the Russians invaded for that reason -- we say we will not insist that you recognize us, let the people decide," Abumuslimov said. "At the beginning we demanded recognition. Now we are making a compromise. We will meet for talks to end the war, withdraw the troops and live by international norms," he said.

After the troops leave, the Chechens would hold elections with international observers present to elect a new president and a parliament. They would then organize a referendum on independence "under international control," he said.

The only fly in the ointment was that Russia was not keen on the idea. A troop withdrawal would virtually assure Chechen independence, whether Russia recognized it or not, Abumuslimov said.

But the Chechens put the plan to General Alexander Lebed during his second visit last week when he met with Yandarbiyev, and they hold out some hope that he will push for a withdrawal first and only then a discussion on status.

Lebed, who impressed the Chechens by turning up in a car with only three bodyguards and a minimum of fuss, unlike the Russian generals who fly in by helicopter, called for a withdrawal and referendum during the presidential election campaign this summer.

Now the Chechens believe he is their best hope for a solution.

"Lebed is aware of the value of life. People who have fought [in war] do not like [loss of life], they are careful about the loss of life because they know what it means first-hand. Lebed also fought and has seen war and will ask 'What is it for?'" Abumuslimov said.

"But people like that [in the government] are few and they will not allow his plan," he added. "Honestly, I fear he will not succeed."

One sign of Lebed's difficulties was that back in Moscow he suggested the Chechens were ready to accept a status similar to that of Tatarstan, that is, broad autonomy within the Russian Federation. But the Chechens were adamant that there had been no such discussion and ruled out any chance of their accepting such a deal.

"Yandarbiyev told him that we are ready to compromise. We are ready for a neighborly agreement but not the Tatarstan one since it is a constitutional agreement," he said.

The Chechens never took part in the referendum confirming the Russian constitution, nor did they take part in subsequent Russian elections. Despite official results showing a high turnout in July's presidential elections, observers said the vast majority of Chechens boycotted them, taking no part in giving President Boris Yeltsin a second term.

The Chechen objection to an agreement like that between Tatarstan and the Russian government, or even some status as an association, is that it offers Chechnya no international guarantee, Abumuslimov said.

Another war could blow up and once again the world would turn its back on Chechnya since it would be regarded, like now, as an "internal issue" of Russia's.

The Chechen distrust of Russia goes deep. Abumuslimov, like all his contemporaries, was raised in Siberia after the entire nation was deported by Stalin in 1944.

Recalling the civil war and the Stalinist purges, he said: "It is rare to find a Chechen whose grandfather was not killed."

For that reason, they were prepared to live under economic blockade from Russia, if necessary, relying on their resilience and talent for trade that would inevitably find a way around any Russian sanctions, he said.

They were also prepared to enter into a confederation or union of independent states, or sign a joint defense agreement which would guard Russia's strategic interests in the area, as long as they received an international guarantee of their independent statehood.

One concession they are also ready to make is not to rub Russia's nose in its latest humiliation in Grozny.

"It is not a humiliation, no one has lost or won. France and Algeria fought for eight years, thousands of soldiers died and many more civilians. And in the end, they left. Now [Charles] de Gaulle is considered a great man."

Asked if Lebed could become Russia's de Gaulle, Abumuslimov said: "There is a danger Lebed will become a Don Quixote, a noble man who will wish and plan so much, but who is battling alone against the world," he said.