Publication: Prism Volume: 2 Issue: 14

Chechnya: Preparing for War Without End

By Maria Eismont

The war in Chechnya did not end on the eve of the Russian presidentialelections, it did not end after Boris Yeltsin’s reelection, thereis no thought of it ending now, and it may never end at all, becausenobody believes it will end. People have adapted to it. They areused to the idea that there is a war on and that it will continuethrough the foreseeable future.

The peace talks on regulating the Chechen crisis which took placein Moscow and Nazran on the eve of the Russian presidential electionswere, without a doubt, needed by both sides. The Russian sideneeded them to demonstrate Boris Yeltsin’s resolve to put an endto the unpopular war, and, in that way, lift his standing in thepolls by at least a few percentage points; the Chechens — towin a breathing spell in the wake of large-scale federal offensives,and to regroup, stockpile arms, and work out a further plan ofaction. Both sides, of course, wanted, and still want peace, butthey understand that their conceptions of peace are very different.

Before entering into negotiations with the Russian leadership,and with President Boris Yeltsin personally, the leaders of theChechen republic of Ichkeria held a series of meetings to decidewhether to hold talks with Boris Yeltsin or with rival presidentialcandidate Gennady Zyuganov. The supporters of the late DjokharDudaev, recalling the deportation of the Chechens and the Ingushiin February 1944, believed that Zyuganov’s policy towards Chechnyawould likely be even worse than Yeltsin’s although it would beeasier for a new president to put an end to the war than it wouldbe for the man who started it. The separatist leadership finallydecided that if the Russian side agreed to sign a document, anddidn’t try to drag out the negotiations until the elections, thatthis would mean that Moscow was indeed committed to the peaceprocess. As a result, the Chechen delegation insisted on the signingan agreement as soon as possible and stuck to their demands, which,although they were slightly changed in the course of the negotiationsin the interest of compromise, remained quite tough. To the surpriseof many members of the Chechen delegation, the Russian side, almostwithout hesitation (only going back to Moscow for a day of consultationswith Prime Minister Chernomyrdin), agreed to their demands andsigned the protocols.

The Nazran talks were striking for the speed with which the sidessigned protocols on withdrawing troops by the end of August, exchangingprisoners, liquidating checkpoints by July 7th, the disarmamentof all Chechen fighters, recognition that all elections were Chechnya’sown internal affair, and that there was no expediency in holdingthe elections to Chechnya’s People’s Assembly set for June 16th.It took only five days (three days at the beginning and two moredays after the break) for the Russian side to agree to virtuallyall of the Chechen side’s demands, except for the demand to recognizethe republic’s sovereignty and the legitimacy of the governmentheaded by Zelimkhan Yandarbiev. Not only observers, but even themembers of the Chechen delegation were surprised that the Russianside was willing to give up so much. On the eve of the Russianpresidential elections, the voters, as was expected, did not goto the trouble of trying to penetrate all the subtleties of thewar. They were satisfied with what they read in the press aboutthe peace agreement signed with the Chechens. And this clearlyworked in Boris Yeltsin’s favor.

In fact, if anyone was fooled, it was the ordinary residents ofChechnya, who believed that the signed official documents wereworth the paper they were printed on. The Chechen delegation,unlike last summer, harbored no illusions about the fate of thispeace agreement, and the Chechen fighters began regrouping andstockpiling arms as soon large-scale military operations stopped.The overwhelming majority of the rebel fighters accompanying theirdelegation to the Nazran talks said virtually the same thing:"Of course, we’ll lay down our arms if they order us to,but it seems we’ll have to fight again." The results of thepresidential election in Chechnya turned out to be a real sensation:nowhere else did Boris Yeltsin — the author of the decree onrestoring "constitutional order," which has resultedin the deaths of tens of thousands of people — receive such supportfrom the voters. Of course, these official figures showing thatthe newly-reelected Russian president with more than 70 percentof the Chechen vote are nothing but one more in a long line offalsifications. But it would be interesting to know how much theseparatists themselves influenced the elections. At least, judgingfrom their decision to take their chances on negotiations withBoris Yeltsin, and from the fact that they did not dispute thevote totals for the Russian president, one can assume that theywere satisfied with the election results.

Of course, after Boris Yeltsin had been reelected, the need tonegotiate with the separatists in the same trusting tone whichRussian officials used in the Moscow and Nazran talks vanished.There is nothing now which obliges Yeltsin to make peace in Chechnyaimmediately. According to various sources close to the Kremlinleadership, unlike last summer, when both the separatist leadersand the Russian government delegation believed in the peace process,this time, no one seriously planned to come to terms with theChechens and so just as soon as the Nazran agreements were signed,they began to be broken.

On the day that the official results of the Russian presidentialelections were announced, federal aviation and artillery beganto attack the villages of Gekhi and Makhketi. The time that ittook for the Central Election Commission to count the votes wasused to prepare the operation. Soon after the capture of thesevillages, war broke out again in the Vedeno and Shatoi regionsof the republic. The federal troops took no new territory, forthey weren’t trying to capture any: from the very beginning ofmilitary operations in Chechnya, they learned that it was unnecessaryand unsafe for federal troops to remain in the villages they captured.Shortly after the soldiers, rebel fighters, and innocent bystanderswho died during the attack on the village are buried, the rebelfighters return.

The headquarters of the Chechen armed formations is constantlychanging its location, which, by the way, is no secret to anyone.Nevertheless, throughout the war, federal troops, after storminga "rebel stronghold," end up satisfying themselves withthe seizure of a village, while the "rebel stronghold"moves on to another location. In spite of the frequent statementsof the Russian military command that arms caches have been discoveredand destroyed, the rebel fighters experience no shortage of arms:they continue to buy small arms and ammunition from the Russiansoldiers for money, food, or even a promise that they won’t beattacked; it is slightly harder for them to get armored vehicles–they have to wait until the next armored column is defeated.

The arrival of a Russian delegation in Chechnya after the peaceagreements had already been signed was reminiscent of the workof one of Boris Yeltsin’s campaign offices in the area. The goalwas simple: to wait until the second round of the elections wasover, and not to allow the peace accords to be disrupted untilthe name of the next Russian president was officially announced.Minister of Nationalities Vyacheslav Mikhailov and his deputiesSergei Stepashin and Vladimir Zorin did a wonderful job: therewere no news reports from Chechnya about any large-scale bombingsor military operations, some units had supposedly already beenwithdrawn, and that meant that Yeltsin’s peace plan was working.After staying in Chechnya until the end of the presidential elections,the delegation returned to Moscow, and said that they were "satisfiedwith the results of the trip." But the delegation members’statements on their "constructive meetings with representativesof the armed opposition" (which were far fewer then theirmeetings with the Russian military command and with the officialauthorities in Grozny) could not conceal the absence of any concreteresults: not a single new document was signed, not a single disputedquestion resolved. But the delegates had done what they had cometo do: Yeltsin’s reelection had gone smoothly, the rebels hadnot taken any aggressive actions against the voters, they hadnot raided any Russian town or publicly announced that the agreementswere off. The rebels’ infrequent statements that the Russianshad violated the moratorium on military actions, or that the agreementson removing checkpoints were being ignored were "repaid withinterest" by the statements of the Russian military commandthat the rebels were violating the agreements. And during thecampaign, almost all of the Russian mass media were working forYeltsin’s reelection, so the statements of the Russian militarycommand were reported much more frequently than those of its opponents.

Later, when hostilities resumed, and it seemed that the membersof the Russian delegation would go back to Moscow, just as theyhad in 1995 after the first peace agreement, to settle down andmake infrequent statements about how Moscow preferred the pathof negotiations — the Russian delegation returned to Chechnyaonce again. Judging from the appearance, actions, and statementsof Mr. Mikhailov and his colleagues, they had no clear idea ofwhat exactly they were doing in this god-forsaken hot spot whilethere was a war on.

The vagueness of this state of affairs was cleverly exploitedby Doku Zavgaev and the premier of his government, Nikolai Koshman,who, with amazing frequency and consistency, drummed it into therepresentatives of the federal center that they could only dealwith the "legally-elected government of Chechnya," i.e.,with them. All the other Chechens who claimed the right to becalled political figures, in their view, were nothing but banditsand had no right to exist. In spite of his extremism towards theseparatists and his constant lying (and you can’t call Zavgaev’sstatements about how peace had come to Chechnya and how his governmentcontrolled all of the republic’s territory, Mr. Zavgaev did notlose the confidence of the Kremlin, and, just as before, was seenby the Russian leadership as an acceptable figure, and, to allappearances, relatively stable.

The role of General Lebed in the development of the most recentevents in Chechnya is much more enigmatic. Not only the Russianleadership, but the separatists as well, place their hopes fora quick resolution of the conflict in the retired General. Inhis campaign speeches, before he went over to the government’sside, Aleksandr Lebed harshly criticized the policy of the Russianpresident and government towards Chechnya. The resumption of thewar in Chechnya after the general became the secretary of theSecurity Council and announced his intention to "sort out"the conflict in Chechnya cannot but suggest that he himself inspiredthe latest escalation on the part of the federal forces. The Chechenside has not formally accused Aleksandr Lebed of being behindthe escalation of hostilities, but the most zealous officialsin the prosecutors’ office and security service of the unrecognizedrepublic of Ichkeria have filed a criminal case against him.

The apparent ambivalence of the Security Council secretary iseasily explained. There is no hope of restoring peace to Chechnyaas long as federal troops are still there. The Russian authoritieshowever, are not willing to pull out the troops. Under these circumstances,neither the resumption of negotiations nor the continuation ofhostilities will give Lebed any additional political points. Whatpeople are expecting from Lebed is decisive action. If Lebed cannotfind a way to impose order in Chechnya, the Russian presidentcan quietly put the blame for the next collapse of the peace processon him, and will be able to rid himself of a dangerous ally, whomhe was forced to include in his ranks for purely electoral reasons.

Translated by Aleksandr Kondorsky and Mark Eckert