Chechen peace exposes tensions, fear of new Afghanistan

News and Press Release
Originally published
GROZNY, Russia (Sep 9, 1996 08:23 a.m. EDT) -- The war with Russia may be over, but Chechens who oppose independence fear their republic faces another conflict that could shatter the ambiguous peace that has descended on Chechnya.

"For us this is not a holiday, it's a funeral," said Mukhadin Shimayev, a local official holding forth on a dusty town square in Urus-Martan, a stronghold of Chechen opposition to the separatist rebels.

"They want us to kill each other. This is the peace established by Lebed," said Shimayev, referring to Russian security chief Alexander Lebed, who negotiated a peace agreement with Chechen rebels who want independence.

An uneasy silence has replaced the throbbing of helicopter gunships and thudding of artillery that resounded throughout Chechnya for more than 20 months. Lebed and the rebel military commander, Aslan Maskhadov, are making progress on a political settlement. The first stage of a Russian withdrawal of thousands of its troops from Chechnya began on Sunday.

But one unsettling truth has emerged: None of the disputes that led to war have been resolved.

The separatists, flush from their military triumph, apparently will not bend on their insistence on full independence. The Kremlin remains vague about a final military withdrawal or a deal on independence.

The Russian disengagement leaves Chechnya still teeming with weapons and divided into two main groups: the separatists and the pro-Moscow "oppozitsiya," or opposition who want to remain part of Russia. The two sides fought a brief war in 1994 and the opposition formed a pro-Moscow government when Russia sent troops into Chechnya later that year.

Many Chechens, who are predominantly Muslim, see a worrisome similarity to the situation a few years ago in Afghanistan, which plunged into bloody factional fighting after Moscow ended its disastrous incursion into that Muslim country.

"Just like in Afghanistan, the Russians have deliberately left without a political agreement in place. It's not the right way to make peace," said Akhmed, a Grozny civilian who returned to a destroyed home last week. He would not give his last name.

"People fought each other in Afghanistan and they'll do it here," he predicted.

Col. Mikhail Cherneshkov, helping to supervise the Russian withdrawal, agreed. "A lot of blood has been shed here," he said. "There's sure to be revenge or bloodshed among the Chechens."

If factional war is imminent, however, the evidence is well-concealed.

The mood is sullen at the opposition headquarters in Znamenskoye, administrative center for the northern Nadterechny region, where the Russian flag still flies and Russian soldiers help man checkpoints.

The oppositionists feel abandoned because the Lebed-Maskhadov accord ignored their pro-Moscow government and effectively put it out of commission.

But the opposition leaders' talk is not militant, perhaps because they were routed in 1994 despite Russian backing, and war-hardened rebels have even more of an upper hand now.

Opposition leaders held talks Wednesday with rebel representatives in an attempt to head off a repeat of that conflict. They pledged to cooperate on elections that under the peace agreement are to be held in about two months and said they will pin their hopes regarding Chechnya's political status on a referendum tentatively set for 2001.

The Nadterechny region's mayor, Aslambek Baukhayev, emphatically denied Russian news reports that the opposition is rearming.

"We are peaceful and we are not going to use force," he said, his outer office was guarded by Chechens with bazookas and assault rifles.

He acknowledged that some private score-settling can be expected among families seeking revenge for relatives' deaths.

"Probably there are some forces that want the Chechen sides to fight each other -- they want the Afghan variant," he said "But people here won't let that happen. Our elders will meet with each other. They have to forgive each other."

The rebels say the future of peace depends on whether Moscow again tries to arm the opposition forces.

"If Russia's special services continue their provocations, the same thing that happened in 1994 will happen again," said Akhmed Zakayev, security adviser to Chechen leader Zelimkan Yandarbiyev.

Prospects of a truly independent Chechnya have stirred increasing concern in Grozny among the remaining ethnic Russians who constituted a majority of the city in Soviet times but now are a fast-dwindling minority.

Most of those left are elderly and have no money and no relatives to go to. They have but one wish: that there be no more fighting.

"I don't care who will be in power," said Alexander Mochalovsky, 81, a retired biologist with a flowing white beard. "I just want peace."

Copyright =A9 1996
Copyright =A9 1996 The Associated Press