The ISCIP Analyst
Behind the Breaking News
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Yel'tsin's Plan & Chechnya's Peace
The recent renewal of the wide-scale Russian offensive against the regions controlled by the Chechen resistance coincided with the formation of the special presidential commission to stabilize the situation in Chechnya. The Russian military became especially active after President Yel'tsin set a March 31 deadline for promulgating his new plan concerning the peaceful resolution of the Chechen conflict. The military leaders were trying to secure the greatest gains possible, before any talks could be launched or moratoria on combat operations could be put into effect.
Hoping to alter dramatically the situation in Chechnya, the Russian military returned to the well-tested tactics of the nineteenth century. The Chechen home guards were squeezed out of the lowlands into the mountainous regions; to deny them supplies of food and ammunition, nearby villages were destroyed. General Aleksei Yermolov, the commander of Russian forces in the Caucasus (from 1816 to 1827) famous for his pathological cruelty, pioneered the practice now being followed.
Negotiations Strengthen Resistance Forces
Having visited Dudayev's bases during this period, I can testify that his forces were in a very sorry state. They were experiencing extreme shortages not only of ammunition but also of the most basic provisions. Shamil Basayev saved the Chechen resistance in June, by seizing a hospital in the Russian city of Budennovsk, and forcing Moscow to the negotiating table.
Though doomed from the outset, the negotiations dragged on all summer. In essence, the opposing sides were irreconcilable: the Russians insisted on the territorial integrity of Russia, while Chechens would agree to cease armed resistance only if the independent Chechen Republic were recognized.(1)
Still, the negotiations brought tangible gains to the defenders of Chechen independence. For the duration of the talks, the sides established a moratorium on military action, which was observed with only a few violations. In the meantime, Dudayev's fighters not only renewed their strength, but returned in the guise of peaceful inhabitants to the very villages from which they had been expelled by Russian forces.
In March 1996, nearly a year later, as Yel'tsin prepared to announce his plan for the peaceful resolution of the conflict, his generals were returning to their old tactics.
Until recently, journalists had complete freedom of movement in Chechnya. Then in December 1995, when Russian artillery leveled the city of Gudermes, the military's new policy toward the press became apparent: journalists still have not been granted access to the city. Correspondents resorted to standing next to Russian posts on the roads leading to Gudermes and interviewing those few survivors who by some miracle had managed to escape.
Since then journalists have been barred from every single village destroyed by Russian forces. Reporters are prohibited from entering those villages even weeks after the storming, long after the danger has passed. For instance, we are still barred from Pervomayskoye, although it was taken three months ago. Likewise, Sernovodsk, taken by the federal forces a month ago, remains off-limits. Under the constitution these actions, at the very least towards journalists who are Russian citizens, are illegal. The stipulation in the Constitution that citizens can travel unhindered anywhere in the country remains in force since a state of emergency was never put into effect in Chechnya.
New limitations on the mass media were introduced in March. Now all journalists working in Chechnya must obtain two accreditations, one from the plenipotentiary representative of the Russian Government in Chechnya, the other from the regional MVD. The MVD is instructed to detain journalists traveling in Chechnya without accreditation.
The Russian military also hinders the activities of international relief organizations. We still have no information regarding the fate of the remaining inhabitants of Sernovodsk because relief workers have been prevented from entering the settlement, despite the fact that the bombardment ceased on March 4, although the "clean up" operation continues. As a result, the representatives of Medecins sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders) have little choice but to wait for refugees to reach them at the military cordons. Meanwhile the civilian population, abandoned in the rubble of Sernovodsk, remains without humanitarian supplies or medical attention.
Members of Doctors Without Borders, based in the Ingushetia capital Nazran, have appealed repeatedly to the military leadership. Their communique stresses that the military's denial of access to civilians who are exposed to danger as a result of combat operations is contrary to the long-standing international practice of allowing unhindered access for independent humanitarian organizations.
"Russia violates the Geneva Accords, which it has signed ! " says Doctors Without Borders coordinator in Nazran, Grazelle Goden, " I cannot understand why they so stubbornly hamper our efforts to deliver first aid to wounded civilians among the local population. I think they are simply afraid that we will see what they are doing."
The military's tactics in dealing with the press are readily understood. In the nineteenth century Russia could annihilate mountain villages without reaction from international public opinion; today the same barbaric tactics threaten to leave the country isolated. In the winter of 1994-1995, when Russian aviation and artillery virtually wiped the Chechen capital, Grozny, off the face of the earth, journalists reporting from the scene made the facts known worldwide, causing embarrassment for the military. Moreover, Russia's admission to the Council of Europe was postponed due to international outrage over its methods in Chechnya. (2)
The upcoming presidential elections also give impetus to new restrictions on the press. The government, deeply in need of Western support, does not want footage of decimated villages to distract from Yel'tsin's campaigning. It would be particularly undesirable to allow the mass media to present the facts of the Russian military killing civilians on the eve of the president's unveiling of his policy for the peaceful resolution of the conflict.
However, it seems that the efforts of the military breed contrary results; it is simply impossible to isolate the journalists. One can often find an alternative route to the 'closed' settlements that has not been blocked by the military. Of course, there is also the nearly universal corruptibility of the federal forces. One is hard pressed to find a guard on post who would refuse a bribe; the amount of the bribe is the only issue. Since the soldiers often fear letting journalists through, it is best to tell them you are simply visiting. Refugees fleeing their villages constitute another source of first-hand information, however, they often overestimate the extent of the damage and the number killed.
As a result, the world still learns of the events in the combat zone, but since the information mainly comes from refugees, the federal forces are seen in a very negative light. Moreover, when reporters succeed in gaining access, they never fail to mention that the military tried to conceal the extent of the destruction and the number of victims.
Effects of Combat on Other Republics
Today Russian forces are simply unable to control fully the Chechen border; they cannot stop Dudayev's fighters from entering the neighboring regions. Under these circumstances, accidental (or not)artillery bombardment of the thus far non- rebellious republics becomes practically unavoidable. Consequently, the threat of combat actions expanding to the interior of neighboring republics grows daily.
Currently combat actions continue within a few kilometers of the Ingush border. Already there have been several cases where combat has spilled into that republic. When the federal forces bomb a Dudayev base in Bamut from Ingush territory, some of the shells fall on the Ingush settlement Arshty. In one incident in early March near Arshty, Dudayev's fighters ambushed a column of Russian APCs. In the course of the ensuing battle, Russian artillery let loose a torrent of fire into Arshty, where some of the resistance fighters had retreated, causing the deaths of several inhabitants of the village.
Today Ingushetia's population of 200,000 is giving shelter to 100,000 refugees. "From the start of the war in Chechnya our republic has been awash in successive waves of refugees" says the director of the Ministry for Emergency Situations of Ingushetia, Mohammed Yevloyev.
"At one point we had almost 200,000 refugees from Chechnya, but gradually some of them started to return. Now we are experiencing a new wave; just in the last few days 20,000 refugees from Sernovodsk and Samashki," Yevloyev says. "Judging from the behavior of the federal forces, this wave won't be the last. We do not have the resources to accept such large numbers of refugees. Already we have resorted to placing people in clubhouses and garages. We have put up tents for about a hundred more near the Sleptzovsky settlement. Social tensions are rising. It seems that certain forces in Moscow are doing everything to pull us into the war."
Dagestan can compete with Ingushetia in the amount of suffering inflicted by the Chechen conflict. The situation is most explosive in the Novolarsky region. Federal forces bomb Chechen territory from the mountains in Dagestan. It is difficult to judge whether the Russians have deliberately targeted settlements in Dagestan, but in recent days six people have been killed, among them four children. Settlements near the Chechen border--Ahar, Shushia, Chapayevka, Solnechnoye and Tychar--have been subjected almost daily to Russian artillery bombardments. In Shushia the village school has been entirely destroyed; eight private homes have sustained considerable damage.
If the current state of affairs is to anyone' s advantage, it is surely those who favor Chechen independence. With every passing day more and more inhabitants of Dagestan come to the conclusion that sooner or later they will have to fight alongside the resistance fighters against the federal forces.
What Lies Ahead?
Under the terms of the agreement Russia can station permanently one infantry brigade (the 205th motorized brigade of the 58th army) and one MVD brigade on the territory of Chechnya. According to subsequent negotiations, both brigades were to be required to remain in their assigned zones and not travel freely throughout Chechnya. Last summer Dudayev's side did not oppose holding parliamentary elections, with the caveat that elections could be held only after the withdrawal of Russian forces. Of course, not one of those provisions was put into effect and the sides locked horns over the basic issue: the status of Chechnya. It seems that until this question is resolved the provisions of other agreements cannot be implemented.
Now, nearly a year later, it looks as though we have come full circle. Russia still insists on its territorial integrity and offers Chechnya wide powers within the Russian Federation. The position of the resistance likewise remains adamant; Chechnya is an independent state. As Yel'tsin unveils the latest peace initiative, there is little reason to believe that a program closely resembling last summer's failed initiatives has any greater chance of success.
Some analysts, including Yevgeni Kiselev of "Itogi," argue that Yel'tsin's willingness to hold talks with resistance fighters spells a major departure from earlier efforts and bodes real hope for a peaceful solution. However, indirect talks would not in themselves signal a major breakthrough, since such talks were held last summer. Arkadi Volsky, the Chairman of Russia's Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, served as moderator and met with Dudayev last July.
Thus far the possibility of holding direct talks between Yel'tsin and Chechen resistance leaders remains remote. It is more likely that talks conducted through intermediaries will be so tangled and inconclusive that they will reach a deadlock long before any meeting between the leaders can take place. Even if such a meeting occurs, it would hardly resolve the ultimate question: the status of Chechnya.
So it seems that Yel'tsin's latest initiative represents little more than a pre-election gimmick. According to General Lev Rokhlin, the chairman of the Duma Defense Committee and a former commander of one of the Russian divisions fighting in Chechnya, "As soon as we squeeze the Dudayevites into the mountains, negotiations begin and with them a moratorium on combat operations. Dudayev's men renew their strength and gradually return to the low-lying regions. Negotiations break down, we resume combat actions to drive them out of the same regions. The cycle is repeated anew!"
Copyright ISCIP 1996