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New York Times
June 30, 2003
Plan to Hand More Autonomy to Chechnya Has Its Skeptics

MOSCOW, June 29 -- As the Kremlin inches toward elections in the breakaway republic of Chechnya, the Moscow-appointed head of the government there has proposed giving Chechnya what it has always wanted -- more autonomy.

Many Chechens interpreted the move as a way for the local leader, Akhmad Kadyrov, to improve his standing ahead of elections, which the newly created Chechen State Council has set for October.

"It's clearly political public relations," said Leche Ilyasov, a Chechen who heads a research institute called Latta, based in the neighboring republic of Ingushetia. "It is very unlikely the Kremlin would go for this. But with it, Kadyrov shows he is willing to stand up to Moscow and demand independence."

Mr. Kadyrov introduced the plan to the Chechen news media a week ago. It called for Chechnya's right to create a national bank, tax-free economic zones, foreign offices, and control over its own oil resources, once a rich source of wealth for the region.

The Kremlin has yet to issue a response, though President Vladimir V. Putin has called for "a treaty on the divisions of power between the republic and the federal center." It was not clear how Mr. Kadyrov's plan related to that.

The office of Sergei V. Yastrzhembsky, Mr. Putin's adviser on Chechnya, did not return telephone calls seeking comment.

"The next step could only involve Chechnya having its own currency," Nezavisimaya Gazeta, an independent newspaper here in Moscow, wrote. Referring to Mr. Kadyrov, installed after Russian troops returned to Chechnya in 1999, the newspaper said, "Kadyrov has decided to swallow as much sovereignty as he can."

Mr. Putin has tried for some time to exit the war in Chechnya, after riding to power on a wave of nationalism when he sent troops back into the republic in 1999. He has assigned his most astute political strategists to untangle the conflict. But Chechen fighters who plant bombs in public places and impoverished Russian conscripts who steal from and kill Chechen civilians have subverted political solutions.

The current talk of a treaty began in May, after a suicide bombing shook the republic and strengthened Moscow's resolve to act. It followed a state-sponsored referendum this spring that lent formal legitimacy to a new constitution, though the new laws keep the republic squarely under Moscow's control.

A 50-member commission, headed by the powerful presidential administration chief, Alexander Voloshin, is assembling a treaty, which Mr. Putin wants finished by October. It is not clear whether it would be presented to the current Chechen leadership or wait until after the election there, but assuming both sides signed onto the treaty, it would then have to be approved by the Russian Parliament. The process includes no participation by the rebels still fighting in Chechnya.

It is not the first time the authorities in Moscow tried to reach a treaty with Chechnya. In early 1996, with the war still raging, a Moscow-appointed Chechen leader, Doka Zavgayev, signed an agreement with President Boris N. Yeltsin of Russia that gave more freedoms to Chechnya. Mr. Zavgayev was swept from power during a rebel attack just eight months later.

One political analyst, Andrei Ryabov, scholar in residence at the Moscow Carnegie Center, said he expected Mr. Putin to give in to many of Mr. Kadyrov's demands for autonomy. The problem, he said, is that Mr. Kadyrov, seen by Chechens as a driver of Moscow's war, has virtually no popular support in Chechnya.

"It might just work, with the usual Russian messiness," said Mr. Ryabov, referring to Mr. Kadyrov's proposal. "The problem is not Moscow, but the fact that Moscow put its trust in a very unpopular person there. Can we build a government with such a person?"

Indeed, Mr. Putin is faced with the task of building institutions in a republic that, according to Mr. Ryabov and most liberal Russian political commentators, has been incapable of building them on its own.

Russia now deals with the violence in Chechnya with news restrictions and military action. The news blackout is carried out largely by making it very difficult for reporters to enter the republic. It has been so effective that many Russians seem only vaguely aware that the war there is grinding into its fourth year.

"It's more of a virtual war than a real one," Viktor Kazantsev, the president's envoy to southern Russia, told a group of European bankers last Monday. "The war is practically over."

But the war remains hot in Chechnya, home to an estimated 700,000 people in an area the size of Massachusetts. A recent military report said that 43 guerrillas and soldiers had been killed in 15 separate gunfights in the previous week. Four recent suicide bombings have claimed about 100 lives and brought a new element of terror to the bloodshed.

Moreover, the Russian military says it has embarked on a powerful summer offensive against guerrilla camps in the mountainous southern third of Chechnya. In one series of bombing raids, about 20 Sukhoi fighter bombers went after what Russian authorities said was a concentration of 500 rebels.

Arsen Sakalov, director of the Chechen Legal Initiative in Ingushetia, which helps Chechens who have lost family members in the war pursue their cases, said Russian forces recently attacked a car carrying farmers home from their fields near the village of Galashki, near the Chechen border. A woman in the car was wounded, he said, and one of two sons riding with her was killed.

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