The war in Chechnya is now in its seventh week. It has consumed Russia’s domestic politics and foreign relations.
The Russian Federation now has perhaps 100,000 troops in Chechnya. That is one serviceman for every two or three remaining inhabitants. Most Chechens have fled their province, driven by Russian bombs and artillery to seek refuge with relatives elsewhere in the Caucasus or in tent compounds near Chechnya’s borders. Inside Chechnya, cities and villages appear deserted. Those too old or ill to leave hide in their basements. On Friday Russian troops entered Chechnya’s second city, Gudermes, about twenty miles from the capital. “We did not take Gudermes,” one Russian commander said. “The city was waiting, asking to be taken.”
The public, mindful of the past, is skeptical of victory. Only one in four respondents to a poll by the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion expects Russian forces to defeat the Chechen rebels. Thirty percent believe the conflict will drag on and spread to other parts of the northern Caucasus. Twenty percent say the war will leave both sides with heavy losses and will end where it began.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, positioning himself for a presidential run next June, identifies himself with the military effort. Like a Russian Cato, he repeats incessantly that the “terrorists” must be destroyed. His putative opponents, Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov and former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, offer no alternative to Putin’s war. They snipe that Putin’s government is divided on Chechnya, pointing to differences in tone between the premeditated statements of the foreign minister and the liverish outbursts of the chief of the general staff. But even Luzhkov and his media outlets cannot find, and have yet to fabricate, evidence that civilians in the government have interfered with the war effort.
Real opposition to the war is restricted to the political fringe. Yelena Bonner, widow of dissident physicist Andrei Sakharov; Lev Ponomarev of the movement called For Human Rights; Lyudmila Alekseeva of the Moscow Helsinki Group; and Aleksei Simonov of the Glasnost Protection Fund joined in an appeal for an international peacekeeping force in Chechnya. (Ms. Bonner testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations.) This is a distinguished fringe, but a fringe nonetheless. Yegor Gaidar and Anatoly Chubais, so-called “young reformers” who head up the Union of Right-Wing Forces, are backing Putin on the war. Among mainstream politicians only Grigory Yavlinsky, who scores between 10 and 15 percent in presidential-preference polls, calls for peace. Yavlinsky says Russia’s armed forces “have fulfilled their mission” by establishing conditions for a political settlement. He wants a thirty-day bombing halt to allow refugees to leave and talks with Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov to begin.
There is no chance that this will happen. As soon as the military situation permits, Putin plans to place a Quisling government in Chechnya, with one Bislan Gantemirov in the title role. Gantemirov was mayor of Chechnya’s capital city when Russian troops held it in 1995-1996. After the war, he was convicted in a Russian court of diverting US$5 million in post-war reconstruction funds to the upkeep of his private army. Last week President Boris Yeltsin pardoned him and freed him from a six-year sentence. Gantemirov is tanned, rested and ready.
Russia cannot escape heavy criticism of its brutal war when the fifty-four-nation Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) holds its summit in Istanbul November 18-19. An OSCE delegation, led by Norwegian diplomat Kim Traavik, toured the northern Caucasus last week. Travis will report to the summit on the appalling conditions in the refugee camps; he will likely propose, as he has done before, that the OSCE mediate the conflict.
The Russians will tough it out. Moscow has already denounced suggestions of a humanitarian crisis in Chechnya or in the camps as “disinformation.” It has rejected offers of mediation as interference in internal affairs. Western criticism is “anti-Russian hysteria,” said a high Kremlin official. Defense Minister Igor Sergeev sees a Yankee plot to prevent a decisive Russian victory: “It is in the national interest of the United States,” he said, “to see the North Caucasus constantly smoldering in armed conflict.” That would advance America’s real objective, “to push us out of the Caspian region, the Caucasus and Central Asia.”