Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 233

Reports out of Chechnya today contradict one another on whether Russian federal forces have made an attempt to storm the republic’s capital. Western media–including CNN, the AP and Reuters–are reporting that Russian forces attempted to storm the city last night, specifically, that a column of Russian tanks was moving toward the center of Djohar, but retreated after sustaining heavy casualties at the hands of the Chechen rebels (a Reuters correspondent reported seeing the bodies of some 100 Russian soldiers). Russia’s Defense Ministry has categorically denied these reports (CNN, AP, Reuters, Russian agencies, December 16). Yesterday the Kremlin declared that federal forces were not bombarding the city and insisted that fighting was taking place only on its outskirts, that Djohar would not in any case be completely destroyed and that civilian residents would be allowed to leave before troops entered. Russian Public Television (ORT), the 51-percent state-owned channel, broadcast footage taken from a military plane flying over the capital, which purportedly demonstrated that no bombardment was underway.

It appears that the Kremlin, worried by pressure from the international community, wants to show that it is trying to avoid large-scale civilian casualties. Meanwhile, the “humanitarian corridors” established to let Djohar civilians escape remain open, and official Russian sources reported yesterday that 469 escaping civilians passed through one Russian checkpoint. Radio Liberty’s correspondent in Djohar, however, reported that the capital was hit by artillery fire both yesterday and the day before, and that while the humanitarian corridors are indeed open, the refugees using them have frequently come under fire. According to various estimates, anywhere from 15,000 to 40,000 civilians remain in the city. Two days ago Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov and field commander Shamil Basaev called on all defenders of Djohar to swear on the Koran to fight against the unbelievers to the last drop of blood. Those who violate the oath, he said, will be shot (ORT, Radio Liberty, CNN, December 15; Nezavisimaya gazeta, December 16).

The Russian military claims that it now controls 120 towns and villages in Chechnya, in which some 90 percent of the republic’s population lives. Federal forces have gained the upper hand in all of Chechnya’s plains and foothills, with the notable exception of the Chechen capital, which they have blockaded. They expect to complete their military operation by the middle of February (ORT, December 15). These claims, however, raise certain doubts. In the summer of 1996 the Kremlin claimed that the territory held by the rebels was home to a mere 5 percent of the republic’s population. While this may have been true formally, rebel units were in practice operating on all the territory controlled by federal forces. At that time, Chechen rebels joked to the Monitor’s correspondent: “The days belong to the federal forces, but the nights [belong to] us.” The events of August 1996, when the rebels moved into and occupied the capital, showed who was actually in control of the situation. It cannot be ruled out that today the federal forces’ control is also strictly formal. The rebels might take actions which will cardinally change the situation on the ground. According to General-Major Nikfor Vasiliev, head of the chemical-biological protection troops, the Chechen fighters earlier opened up one of the sites where radioactive waste is buried, but the federal forces have taken the site under control and it does not present a threat to the republic’s population. However approximately twenty such sites are located in Chechnya, and if the rebels are able to open them up, it could create an ecological catastrophe for the entire North Caucasus (Lenta.ru, December 15).

Meanwhile, Russian Emergency Situations Minister Serge Shoigu claims that he has been trying to contact Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov with the hope of discussing possible joint federal-Chechen efforts to facilitate the exit of civilians from Djohar, and that to this end he, Shoigu, “is ready to contact the Devil” (Nezavisimaya gazeta, December 16). Maskhadov has already announced his readiness for negotiations with the Russian leadership and even for “wide compromises which would satisfy both sides and take Russia’s interests as a world power into consideration.” But he wants Knut Vollebaek, the chairman of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), to serve as a mediator for such negotiations. Vollebaek, who is currently on an official visit to the North Caucasus, stated prior to his departure from Dagestan that he was ready to fulfill such a role. Moscow, however, views such a proposal as interference in its internal affairs, despite the fact that Russia signed the OSCE charter in Istanbul (see the Monitor, December 15). Aleksandr Avdeev, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, who has been accompanying Vollebaek during his visit, said: “We don’t need mediators–it is Russia’s internal affair, and we will handle it ourselves.” There was a heated discussion between Vollebaek and Shoigu, who urged the foreign diplomat to tend to Kosovo, where, Shoigu said, many problems remain. Meanwhile, the Russian authorities did not allow Vollebaek to visit the front line of the fighting near the Chechen capital. In an apparent gesture of protest, Vollebaek decided not to visit the “Potemkin villages” of northern Chechnya that the Russian side wanted him to see.