Publication: Prism Volume: 6 Issue: 4

By Igor Rotar

“Welcome to hell.” These are the words that greet all visitors to Grozny, scrawled by Chechen fighters to intimidate the federal troops. The place that until recently was the Chechen capital does indeed conjure up visions of purgatory. During the previous military campaign only the center of Grozny was destroyed, but this time the whole town has been reduced to rubble: Only on the outskirts, in private residential areas, does one come across houses that can be restored. Overall the town seems almost deserted. The only signs of activity in the whole depressing scene are the ubiquitous, well-fortified roadblocks of the Interior Ministry troops, reminiscent of mini-fortresses. To add a little bit of spice to their lives, the policemen adorn their checkpoints with signs which have survived from the previous life of the town: “Bureau de change,” and even “Weapons may be deposited here. Barter is possible.”

However, the impression that the town is dead is a deceptive one. Quite often you can spot signs on the ruined houses to warn off marauders: “People live here;” or “We’ve come home.” Vasily Yurchuk, a Grozny-based official from the ministry for emergency situations, told Prism: “Today there are 11,500 civilians registered as living in Grozny. People live in basements, and it is simply impossible to find them all. That’s why we’ve set up several soup kitchens for anybody who wants feeding.” These food distribution points are always included in the “tour” of Chechnya organized for journalists by the office of Russian presidential aide Sergei Yastrzhembsky. The presence of journalists here provokes just two reactions among local residents: indifference or obvious irritation. “Why are you filming here? How much longer are you going to go on showing this? This is all for show. You should be photographing the bodies in the cellars,” a group of angry Chechen women yell at the reporters. Unfortunately, it is not easy to verify their information. Journalists are only allowed to work in Chechnya if they are accompanied by soldiers who decide what they should see. Those who flout this rule are stripped of their accreditation.

The local Russians–who make up the vast majority of those left in Grozny–are fed up with the reporters too. It is not easy to get people to talk; they usually just wave journalists away: “Leave us alone–we’re sick of it all.” But if you show some determination, it is possible to get a conversation going. “After the hell we’ve been through, people have been hit by a wave of apathy. We’re supposed to be the lucky ones–we’re still alive. But how can we go on? Our homes have been destroyed, and it’s naive to imagine that we’ll be given somewhere to live in Russia,” says Svetlana Belova, a former teacher.

Life in “independent” Chechnya was tough for local Russians. Although Slavs were not kicked out of their jobs, and as a rule their neighbors and ordinary people were well disposed towards them, the incidence of Russians having their apartments repossessed or being abducted into slavery in the mountains was considerably higher than among the Chechen population. It should be pointed out that such cases were not as widespread as suggested by the Russian media. Of fifteen Russians interviewed by the Prism correspondent, none had suffered such a tragedy, although they all confirmed that such things had happened. “It wasn’t even because of our nationality that we suffered. It’s just that there was no point going to the police–there was nothing they could do with the bandits anyway,” former electrician Vasily Pavlov told me. “There were always plenty of well-armed relatives ready to defend any Chechen. But who would stand up for a poor Russian?!” And as for whether things were better under Maskhadov or now–this question had my interlocutor stumped: “It’s like choosing whether to be shot or hanged.”

As a rule the local Russians have no desire to stay in Chechnya. There are two reasons for this. First, after all they’ve been through, they just want to forget it and move out as soon as possible. Second, the local Slavs are worried that the current Chechen campaign may have the same outcome as the first. These fears are quite justified. Grozny provides a clear example of this. All those living here are required to have a pass from the town’s military commander. Documents are checked at checkpoints which have been set up every 200-300 meters. However, these measures have not had particularly impressive results. Attacks on Russian troops continue to be a regular feature of life in “clean” Grozny. The most striking example of this was the guerrilla attack in early March on interior ministry troops from the Moscow region. Not only did the rebels manage to kill several policemen; they also managed to escape from a town which was supposedly completely blockaded.

Significantly, on the same day the Moscow troops were attacked, Khattab’s fighters came down from the hills and almost totally wiped out a company of Pskov paratroopers: Of ninety men, just six survived. The acting commander of the federal troops, Gennady Troshev, said that the paratroopers fought for three days, but the Russian generals were unable to get reinforcements through to the defending Pskov company. This either means that Russia’s military leaders are incapable of running an elementary operation, or that in fact the federal troops in Chechnya are facing not a “rabble of bandits and shepherds” but a well-trained and professional army. Interestingly, before the tragedy the generals had announced that the main guerrilla forces had been routed and that there were just “small groups of bandits, five or seven-strong” left in the hills. Just how wrong these triumphalist reports from the Russian generals were was demonstrated by subsequent events. In mid-March the field commander Ruslan Gelaev entrenched himself in the village of Komsomolsk in western Chechnya. For two weeks the federal troops stormed the village, but Gelaev managed to get out of the area with the bulk of his detachment. And then a few days after the fighting in western Chechnya was over, the Chechens attacked a column of interior ministry troops from Perm in the east of the republic, killing more than 30 Russian policemen.

It is now fairly clear that the Kremlin has failed in its plan of wiping out the main guerrilla forces by early spring. And with leaves on the trees it has become much more difficult for the federal troops to detect guerrilla units, giving every reason to suppose that the war in Chechnya will drag on for months to come. Incidentally, in off-the-record conversations with the Prism correspondent, many military personnel speculated that most of the fighters who had left Grozny had not in fact tried to get to the hills, but had just “melted” into the surrounding villages, biding their time disguised as civilians, waiting for the warmer season which is more favorable for a guerrilla war.

The Kremlin does have two major advantages in comparison with the previous campaign, however. This time, by no means all civilians are prepared to fight the Russian troops to the bitter end. It is not that the Chechens have changed their attitude towards Russia. The fresh bombardments of Chechen villages and the total destruction of Grozny have only served to reinforce the hatred of the indigenous population towards the federal troops.

Many Chechens today, though, no longer feel their former commitment to the guerrillas. “When the Russian troops left Chechnya in 1996, we hoped that normal civilian life would be restored. But, alas, one nightmare was replaced by another: Chechnya was divided up into the zones of influence of armed bands, and Maskhadov, who was so popular back then, could only watch helplessly from his residence as the anarchy spread. Today there is equal hatred both for the federal troops, who are indiscriminately killing civilians, and for our own fighters, who couldn’t wait for another war.” The Prism correspondent has heard this sort of opinion from many Chechens. However, these “disillusioned” people will never cooperate with the Russian authorities for fear of revenge on the part of the separatists. For example, a woman has been appointed head of the administration of the temporary capital of the republic, Gudermes. This is an unprecedented situation for Chechnya, where there are very strong Muslim traditions of male supremacy. But no men were willing to take the job. The new administration head, Malika Gezemieva, sits in an unheated office under a portrait of Putin (“My favorite man!” she explains). The former principal of a Gudermes school, she speaks eloquently and at length about restoring civilian life in the town entrusted to her. Sadly it is difficult to believe this. As the journalists moved around the town they were surrounded by ten interior ministry servicemen. Even in the local hospital, surrounded by Russian checkpoints, reporters were warned not to go anywhere without security. “There may be “Wahhabis” here!”

To be fair, it should be noted that the Russian army fighting in Chechnya is much better prepared today than during the previous campaign. The soldiers are dressed in good quality uniforms and are given good hot food. Whereas in 1994-96 most of the conscripts were from underprivileged sections of the population, and were drunk most of the time, this time they have been replaced by professionals. However, the current relatively favorable state of the Russian army in Chechnya involves huge expenditure. A soldier serving in Chechnya receives a daily allowance of 830 rubles (about US$30). Given that the average monthly wage in Russia is under US$100, this is a lot of money, and there is a selection procedure for those who want to go and fight in Chechnya.

But if the war drags on, the Kremlin will simply not be able to maintain such expenditure. If this happens, the situation will become reminiscent of that in 1994-96, when half-starved soldiers in worn-out uniforms were easily bought by Chechen fighters, and the conscripts were made up mainly of misfits from civilian life who did not even possess basic military skills.

Igor Rotar is an analyst with the Jamestown Foundation.