Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 198

The Kremlin has announced that it plans in the near future to open special “corridors” to allow the Chechen republic’s civilian population to leave the regions controlled by rebel fighters. At the moment, the Russian troops are not allowing anyone to either leave or enter the areas of Chechnya not under federal control.

At the moment, Russian forces are located about five kilometers from the Chechen capital of Djohar. In order to avoid losses, they have avoided directly confronting the Chechen fighters, and have instead been subjecting Chechen positions to massive artillery fire and aerial bombardment. General Gennady Troshev, the commander of the Eastern Group of Forces in Chechnya, announced yesterday a reward of US$1 million for “the head” of Chechen field commander Shamil Basaev (NTV, ORT, RTR, October 25).

Judging by the experience of Russia’s 1994-1996 military campaign in Chechnya, it is not hard to predict that, given the very low level of accuracy of such mass bombardment, there will be great loss of civilian life again this time. Indirect evidence for this is the decision to open up the departure corridors to civilians. It should be noted that during the last military campaign, the Kremlin only once opened exit avenues for Chechen civilians. That decision, which followed the re-taking of the Chechen capital of Grozny (today’s Djohar) by Chechen fighters, was rescinded after 24 hours, when an expected counterattack by federal forces on the Chechen capital did not materialize. This time it is clear that the corridors will be opened only for a short time prior to a massive attack by federal forces. It is also clear that a huge mass of civilians will try to leave while they can. Considering that after the start of the current conflict the republic’s population dropped by nearly half–to a new low of some 200,000–then it is possible that following the opening of corridors Chechnya may lose virtually its entire population.

On the other hand, the experience of the previous military campaign suggests that many civilians will not manage to leave the villages, towns and cities of Chechnya before the start of massive bombing by federal forces. It is also possible that the Chechen fighters might in some instances use local ethnic Russians, who currently number around 30,000, as human shields (Kommersant, October 20; see also the Monitor, October 22).

Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, while on a visit to Italy, tried to explain Russia’s position vis-a-vis Chechnya to the international community. Ivanov said that if the terrorists do not want to be destroyed, their only choice is to put down their weapons. Ivanov’s comments came in response to Italian Foreign Minister Lamberto Dini, who said that Rome was seriously worried about the conflict in Chechnya (RTR, NTV, ORT, October 25).