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Time Europe
May 26, 2003
No End In Sight
The war in Chechnya helped Putin win the Russian presidency. With a wave of new suicide bombings, could it now become his downfall?

Bombings and gunfire are constant features of life in Chechnya. But even by those standards, the carnage last week in the breakaway Russian republic was heavy. On Monday a truck packed with explosives rumbled into a compound of offices and homes in the northern district of Nadterechny and exploded, killing 59 people and injuring over 200. Two days later, another bomb killed 18 and injured over 100 as it ripped through a crowd of 15,000 gathered for festivities marking the birth of the Prophet Muhammad in a field near a religious shrine in Iliskhan-Yurt, a village 30 km east of the capital, Grozny. That afternoon in Moscow, 2,000 km north of Grozny, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell fresh from his tour of a bombed-out residential compound in Riyadh condemned the Chechen attacks. Standing beside him, Russian President Vladimir Putin found parallels among the Chechen and Saudi atrocities, saying they were all "links in the same chain of acts by international terrorists."

Although al-Qaeda has infiltrated Chechnya, there's no evidence it orchestrated last week's Chechen attacks. And if Putin was looking for parallels he might have found a better one in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Like the Palestinians, the Chechens believe they are fighting an occupying power rather than carrying out an al-Qaeda-style, ideologically motivated jihad. Chechen resistance to Russian domination dates back centuries, and the population said by Russia to be more than 1 million, but estimated by human-rights groups at around half that remains largely hostile to Russian rule. The disaffection of ethnic Chechens, who are Sunni Muslims, has created openings for international terrorist groups like al-Qaeda. But Putin, who faces re-election next year, was right on another point. The outcome of Russia's and the U.S.'s respective wars on terror will have a lot to do with whom each country elects as President in 2004. "The bombings effectively mark the beginning of the election campaign," says Alexei Mitrophanov, Deputy of the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament.

Putin swept to power in 1999 on a wave of public support for his tough stance against Chechen insurgents, who were alleged to have killed more than 300 people in a series of apartment-building bombings within Russia. Now, as the violence in Chechnya intensifies, Putin faces a stark political reality. "If the Chechen war made Putin President, the same war can undo him," says Yuri Shchekhochikhin, Deputy Chair of the Duma's Security Committee. Adds Salambek Maigov, the Moscow-based representative of rebel Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov: "Putin has manacled himself to a hell-bound train and can't get off. He has made himself a hostage to the situation."

Last week's attacks mark a turning point. Monday's bombing in Znamenskoye, a town in northern Chechnya's well-fortified and traditionally pro-Moscow Nadterechny district where much of the local administration had relocated after a bomb gutted government buildings in Grozny in December, means the rebels can strike at will anywhere in the region despite Putin's assurances that the war is over and Russian soldiers are engaged only in "counterterrorist operations." The reality is that uncounted numbers of Chechens die in these operations and, on average, 10 to 15 Russian soldiers are killed every week in Chechnya. "It's blind carnage and destruction," says Shchekhochikhin. "Nobody controls the situation."

Putin is also facing domestic problems that could complicate his re-election plans. Last month his approval ratings, which in January hovered around 75%, slipped to a record low of 48%. That decline is more a reflection of Russia's general economic malaise than voters' concerns about Chechnya, but the failure to end the war is having an impact even among Russians inured to the long-running conflict. "Russians aren't all that concerned about bloodshed in Chechnya, but they are concerned about what the war is costing, while food and utility prices are getting out of hand," says Mitrophanov.

If Putin has much at stake in Chechnya, it is partly because he himself has often drawn the connection between the secessionist republic's future and his own. To demonstrate his alleged commitment to a political solution, he held a referendum in March that gave Chechens the opportunity to approve a new draft constitution that reaffirmed Chechnya's status as an integral part of Russia, but promised wide autonomy and self-rule. The vote official turnout was 90%, with 96% supporting Moscow's proposals is to be followed by presidential and parliamentary elections in December. But Frank Judd, a member of the British House of Lords who served as the Council of Europe's lead rapporteur for Chechnya until he quit in protest over the referendum, says the poll was a fiction. "Where was the freedom? The opportunity for people who had doubts to voice them? What kind of ballot integrity was there?" The referendum would lead to a solution, Judd snorts, "if pigs could fly." In a more measured assessment, a U.S. State Department official called it "a start."

Putin promised that the referendum would bring peace and stability to the region, but of course it has not. The abductions routinely carried out by the Russian army have actually increased since the vote. "We know for a fact that the reprisals have grown much worse after the referendum, contrary to what the Russians promised," says a senior U.S. diplomat. "We raised the issue with the Russians and told them they must do something to shore up their pledges." But with the U.S. fighting its own war on terror, the Bush Administration is hardly going to publicly castigate Moscow for its excesses.

"There is no way this can be resolved without international intervention," says Ruslan Khasbulatov, a professor of economics and former head of the Supreme Soviet, the early Yeltsin-era Federal Parliament. Rebel leader Maskhadov's representative, Maigov, insists that his boss "is ready to take part in talks without any preliminary conditions." Maigov concedes that international terrorist networks, probably including al-Qaeda, have established themselves in Chechnya. But their presence "is the effect of the war rather than its cause," Maigov says. "Only by putting an end to the violence directed against the Chechen people can we put an end to the wave of suicide bombings that is now bound to grow."

Force has so far failed to achieve anything in Chechnya, except fomenting more violence. After the March referendum, more than 200 Chechens disappeared in nighttime raids by Russian death squads, prompting reprisal bombings from the militants. Although Putin referred to "acts of terror" during last Friday's State of the Nation address, he didn't speak of the bombings earlier in the week. The only mention of Chechnya at all was his offer of amnesty to those who lay down their arms by August and praise for the referendum that, as Putin put it, showed "that the Chechens consider themselves a part and parcel of the multiethnic Russian people. The referendum drew a line under the period when all the power in Chechnya was usurped by bandits and citizens were deprived of basic human rights. All that is behind us now." It's hard to imagine Putin really believes that.

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