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Setback Seen for Chechens' Cause

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Setback seen for Chechens’ cause

Theater takeover could prolong war, not shorten it

By Sharon LaFraniere


MOSCOW, Oct. 27 — The final outcome of this week’s heart-stopping hostage crisis here will be precisely the opposite of what the Chechen rebels who seized the crowded Moscow theater had hoped, political and military analysts here predicted today.

INSTEAD OF ending a war in Chechnya that has entrapped more than a half-million civilians, 80,000 Russian soldiers and a few thousand guerrillas for three bloody years, the hostage-taking will prolong it, many analysts say.

The episode also appears to have stiffened the resolve of many Russians to fight what they see as the terrorist threat at their back door. Government officials said it should permanently dispel any notion that the rebels lead a secular separatist movement. If they ever did, the Russian officials said, their campaign has been hijacked by terrorists.

In addition, the theater takeover served to discredit among Russians the one Chechen leader, Aslan Maskhadov, who has been called a possible negotiating partner if the Russian government ever agreed to peace talks.


“What happened is the Chechen rebels showed themselves without masks,” said Alexander Oslon, who heads the Public Opinion Foundation, a polling group here. “It has become obvious to everyone that Chechen rebels and terrorists are the same thing.”

That the Russian army is barely able to keep a lid on the militants in Chechnya despite two wars in less than a decade seems, at the moment, irrelevant to many people here. Alexei Malashenko, an expert on Chechnya with the Carnegie Endowment’s Moscow Center, predicted that the government’s position on a conflict that has claimed the lives of at least 4,500 soldiers since 1999 will now be “more uncompromising.”

President Vladimir Putin’s televised speech to the Russian public early Saturday suggested that his resolve to keep Russian troops in Chechnya is firmer than ever. He said the “armed scum” who took over the theater four nights ago represent an inhuman, international foe that must be defeated.

Kremlin supporters as well as critics predicted that Russian soldiers in Chechnya will now be even more pitiless in the so-called cleansing operations so dreaded by Chechen civilians. Human rights groups say that nearly a thousand civilians have died at the hands of Russian troops.

“We need a political solution,” said Alexander Dugin, a leader of Russia’s Eurasia Party and an adviser to the speaker of the State Duma, the lower house of parliament. “But in the light of these terrorist acts, given the obvious challenge to Russian statehood, this topic ought to be adjourned for some time.”

Some analysts also predicted trouble for Chechens living in Moscow, saying they could easily become targets for the public’s anger. In a Thursday poll of 500 Muscovites by the Public Opinion Foundation, one-fourth said people from the Caucasus region, where Chechnya is located, should be forced out of the capital.

Kremlin supporters said that the failure of the rebels’ Moscow mission demonstrates they are getting desperate and that the operation will damage them further. Other analysts, however, contend that the rebels have shown renewed strength over the past three months, with a spate of deadly attacks on Russian and Chechen officials allied with Moscow.

The rebels’ new ferocity appears to grow from an alliance between two rebel commanders, Maskhadov and Shamil Basayev, who were rivals for most of the war. According to Russian media reports, the two met in July in Chechnya’s forested mountains and agreed to team up.

Since then, the rebels have shot down a Russian military helicopter, killing 118 people, and infiltrated areas of Chechnya that were supposedly indisputably under Russian control.

Leading liberal politicians argued today that the hostage crisis was even more dramatic proof that the Russian military strategy was not working, and that a political settlement is Russia’s only chance to solve the Chechnya problem.


“We will never solve this problem any other way, because this is international terrorism, which takes advantage of an internal conflict,” said Irina Khakamada, co-leader of the liberal Union of Right Forces party. Others said Putin is now in a perfect position to start peace talks because he is seen as a victor who thwarted a terrorist attack and managed to save hundreds of lives.

Among those who called for a shift toward talks was Sergei Karaganov, a prominent military expert who serves as an unofficial Kremlin adviser. Karaganov, head of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy, told a Moscow radio station this week that Russia’s military operation in Chechnya had failed and that the Kremlin ought to negotiate if there is a chance to create some version of peace.

He suggested that Russia should then isolate the troubled republic as much as possible, fencing it off with a wall topped with barbed wire. “Cars should not go there. Planes should not fly there. Nothing should leave the place,” he said.

But even proponents of peace talks acknowledged they were confounded by the question of who could now represent the Chechen side. That question became even more devilish this week as evidence mounted that the 25-year-old Chechen rebel who commanded the band of 50 that seized the theater was no lone maverick.

Russia’s liberals have long advocated talks with Maskhadov, the former Chechen president turned rebel commander who claims to represent the moderate, secular wing of the Chechen independence movement.

But while Maskhadov publicly condemned the theater takeover on his Web site, Russian officials have alleged that he was deeply implicated in it.

Boris Nemtsov, co-leader of the Union of Right Forces, said in an interview that he negotiated for hostage releases for two days with Abu Bakr, the rebel who was second in command of the hostage-takers.

Bakr never mentioned either Maskhadov or Basayev, Nemtsov said, until 11 p.m. Friday. Then, just hours before the rebels were reported to have planned to blow up the building, Nemtsov said Bakr told him: “You call Basayev and Maskhadov. We are ordinary soldiers. That’s it.”

Grigory Yavlinsky, another Russian liberal and leader of the Yabloko Party, also said today that his view of Maskhadov has changed. If Maskhadov commanded the rebels in the theater, he said, he could never participate in a political settlement.

The Kremlin has long refused talks with Maskhadov, and a high-ranking State Department official said last month that the United States no longer suggests Maskhadov as a possible negotiating partner because he had recently embraced “jihad elements and terrorists.”

Instead of peace talks, the Kremlin began trying today to use the surge in world sympathy to isolate groups that it links to Chechen rebels. The Russian Foreign Ministry said there would be no summit between Russia and the European Union if the World Chechen Congress is held in Copenhagen on Monday and Tuesday. The ministry also criticized France for allowing supporters of the Chechen separatist movement to meet Saturday morning in Paris.

Dmitri Rogozin, who heads the State Duma’s international affairs committee, said Russia will probably not participate in next month’s session of the Chechnya committee of the Council of Europe, Europe’s leading human rights organization, because leaders of the committee had not denounced the hostage seizure.

“Silence now means solidarity with terrorists,” Rogozin said in an interview Saturday. “Last night I lost all my enthusiasm in trying to get through to these hard hearts.”

On Russian television, he asked: “Will they, at long last, call a spade a spade?”

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