A PITIFUL, HELPLESS GIANT…
Chechnya, a Muslim ethnic republic in the Caucasus mountains, is nominally part of the Russian Federation. Russian forces and Chechen insurgents fought a war in 1994-1996 which left 35,000 dead but failed either to restore Russian rule or to secure the republic’s independence.
On March 5, persons unknown abducted at gunpoint General Gennady Shpigun at the airport outside Chechnya’s capital. General Shpigun, a native of the Caucasus, is the representative in Chechnya of the Russian Ministry of the Interior. The Interior Ministry, which includes its own armed forces and the Federal Security Service, successor to the KGB, is no wimp agency. Its minister, Sergei Stepashin, was a hard-nosed hawk during the Chechnya war. He is no wimp either.
Freeing General Shpigun, Stepashin said, is a matter of personal honor and a test of Moscow’s resolve and capabilities. His remarks were quickly followed by threats of “operational activities” and “decisive and effective measures,” including air strikes, a full economic blockade, and a guilt-by-association crackdown on ethnic Chechens in Moscow and elsewhere.
But a week later, General Shpigun is still missing, his captors and their motives still unknown. The threatened air strikes have not occurred. Concern in Moscow has shifted from defending honor and inflicting punishment to containing the damage. President Boris Yeltsin reportedly told Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov that he must take “urgent measures” to ensure that the regions bordering Chechnya–in particular the Republic of Dagestan–are not destabilized. So supplies of Russian gas, which must pass through Chechen pipelines to reach customers in Dagestan, continue to flow to both republics, and in Dagestan a notorious and popular gangster-politician was released from prison, perhaps in return for a promise of help in securing Shpigun’s release.
Russian authorities and much of the press blame the kidnapping on either Shamil Basaev or Salman Raduev, the two most prominent of several “field commanders”–warlords–who operate openly in Chechnya’s anarchy. They are likely suspects, but there is as yet no evidence.
In contrast to Stepashin’s belligerence, Yevgeny Primakov assured his countrymen that “we will not let the matter lead to the resumption of military actions in Chechnya. That will not be.” But the Chechnya dilemma has long divided Russia’s political class into a “party of war” and a “party of peace.” The party of war may still regain its voice if the situation drags on unresolved.