Chechnya: Putin's Peace Plan Seems Doomed to Backfire
Russian President Vladimir V. Putin reacted fiercely to Moscow's first-ever suicide bombing on July 5. "There is no point in trying to cure these people. They need to be dug out of the cellars and caves in which they hide and be wiped out," he declared at a government meeting two days after two women blew themselves up outside a Moscow rock festival, killing at least 14. One of the bombers was confirmed as a resident of the breakaway republic of Chechnya.
The timing of the suicide attack may have been coincidental. But it came just a day after Putin announced his plan to hold a presidential election in Chechnya on Oct. 5. The controversial scheme is the latest step in his four-year effort to settle Russia's 11-year conflict with Chechen separatists, which has killed more than 14,500 Russian soldiers and tens of thousands of Chechen civilians. Putin wants to install what he calls a "legitimate government" in Chechnya -- an elected one that would replace the current Moscow-appointed administration but still swear allegiance to the Russian Federation.
Achieving that goal is important to Putin because he plans to run for reelection next spring, and his supporters in Parliament face elections this December. Putin built his political reputation pledging to take a tough line to end the Chechen conflict, and voters are still waiting for results. Western leaders, including George W. Bush, are also concerned about the outcome: Islamic militants the world over increasingly identify the Chechen struggle as part of their crusade against "infidel" civilizations. "I don't think anyone relishes the prospect of an independent Chechen state," says U.S. Ambassador to Russia Alexander Vershbow.
But Putin's peace plan, as it now stands, seems doomed to backfire, and could even lead to more violence. The reason is that the plan seems crafted to stage the triumph of the sole Chechen leader whose authority the Kremlin recognizes: Akhmad Kadyrov, whom Putin appointed three years ago to head the regional administration. Putin appears determined to freeze out of the process anti-Kadyrov leaders such as the prominent separatist Aslan Maskhadov. Even though Maskhadov condemns suicide bombings, Putin views him as a terrorist and has spurned his offer for talks to end the war.
Critics say that's a mistake. Russian parliamentarian Sergei Kovalyov, a longtime Chechnya watcher, believes no settlement is possible without participation from top rebel leaders. The first step, he advises, should be talks to achieve a cease-fire, if necessary mediated by international groups. An election viewed by anti-Kadyrov forces as a scam could well stiffen rebel opposition. Another problem with the Kremlin's apparent favoritism of Kadyrov is that he is distrusted by ordinary Chechens. As the mufti or religious leader of Chechnya in the mid-1990s, he called for an Islamic jihad against Russia. Now he's preaching against separatism while building a power base with the Kremlin's help. "Chechens realize that such a person could betray them again," says Sergei Khaikin, an independent Moscow pollster who visits Chechnya frequently.
Strangely enough, if Putin were to allow genuinely open elections, they might expose the separatist cause as bereft of public backing. Khaikin says a silent majority of war-exhausted Chechens, perhaps 70%, favors a long-term solution in which Chechnya remains part of Russia. Many believe Chechnya is too weak to survive independently. Others say the cause of armed insurrection is futile.
Putin's hope is that the next few months will mark a turning point in the Chechen conflict. But few Russians, Chechens, or Westerners should count on that outcome yet.
By Paul Starobin in Moscow
Edited by Rose Brady