The political objective, according to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, is to neutralize the Chechen guerrillas. Regular Chechen soldiers will be granted immunity if they disarm immediately. Putin denounced the 1996 peace agreement and recognized Chechnya’s pre-1996 legislature as the region’s only legitimate political authority. He says he is nevertheless willing to negotiate with President Aslan Maskhadov, who signed the 1996 peace agreement for Chechnya before his election in 1997, but only if he helps to turn over guerrilla leaders Shamil Basaev and Khattab. Putin knows that is an impossible condition: Maskhadov would lose what little authority he still has in Chechnya if he tried now to cooperate with the Russians against the guerrillas.
Russia’s unclear plans for Chechnya’s future give rise to charges of genocide. The head of the Muslim clerical establishment in the Caucasus, himself a strong opponent of the Islamic fundamentalists, accused Russia last week of waging a war of extermination against the Chechens (see “On the border” below). In 1991 Chechnya was home to over a million people. According to the Moscow newspaper Kommersant, Chechnya’s population (estimated here last week at under half a million) was 350,000 in January and is now down to 200,000.