What Follows Victory?

Russia is heading for a military victory in Chechnya. What happens next? It is depressing to recall that almost exactly five years ago in December 1994 as the first Chechen war was beginning, I wrote a column for The Moscow Times entitled "Search for 'One Chechen.'" It quoted the tsarist conqueror of the Caucasus and founder of Grozny, General Alexei Yermolov, as saying that all he needed to subdue the mountain peoples was "one Chechen," who could work on his side. But I argued that Russia's decision to use force in Chechnya would make it impossible to locate its "one Chechen" on whom it could rely to govern in its name.

The same is true today. Let us assume for a moment that Russia does indeed want to treat Chechnya as a subject of the Russian Federation and give it an elected Chechen leader f even in a rigged election. If that was a difficult task before, it is doubly so now, when the Chechen population has endured two brutal interventions by Russian soldiers and has developed a deep allergy to Russian military occupation. The Chechen the Russians require almost certainly does not exist: someone who both commands authority in Chechnya and yet is on the same side of the barricades as the Russian army.

I do not believe that Moscow politicians fully understand how wide the gulf is that separates them from even the most outwardly loyal Chechen politicians. In interviews with most of Russia's former appointees over the years, I have heard them calmly discuss Chechen independence as a real option and describe their constant struggles to curb the excesses of the Russian military. I remember Salambek Khadzhiev, who headed Moscow's first pro-Russian government in 1995, saying how relieved he was that Chechen villages had not "disarmed" as instructed by the Russian armed forces; if they had given up their weapons, they would have been completely ravaged and looted, he observed. And when I last saw Musa Dzhamalkhanov, now Russia's deputy envoy to Chechnya and formerly a deputy prime minister in the second pro-Moscow government of Doku Zavgayev, he spent most of the time complaining about the behavior of the Russian soldiers who had arrested his relations and looted his home in Grozny.

All of which is probably why Moscow has ended up freeing from jail and pardoning Beslan Gantemirov. Gantemirov has never stood for anything other than his own enrichment and personal power and has obviously been offered the right price. He reputedly made his money in the famous bank scams of 1991, when enterprising gangsters exchanged false promissory notes known as "avizo" for vast amounts of cash. He then set up Chechnya's first armed Islamic paramilitary group, known as the Islamic Path, and put it at the service of Dzhokhar Dudayev. It was they who seized the television center in Grozny on Aug. 22, 1991, signaling the start of the "Chechen revolution." After quarreling with Dudayev f again reportedly over money f he set himself up as Urus-Martan's first, but not last, armed warlord, and in 1993 gratefully accepted the gift of 17 Russian tanks to attack Dudayev. He re-emerged as mayor of Grozny in 1995, when he had a squad of men, who fought both the pro-Dudayev rebels and, more surreptitiously, Russian soldiers. Then he was arrested and imprisoned on embezzlement charges.

Gantemirov is such a notorious bandit that Moscow cannot seriously consider him as anything other than a useful short-term military ally for mopping up western Chechnya. But if not him, then who? The Russians have long ago exhausted their stock of authoritative Chechen politicians. There is no prospect of inviting back from Tanzania Doku "Aeroportovich" Zavgayev f so nicknamed because he constantly feared leaving the Russian military protection of the Northern Airport, and a widely reviled figure in Chechnya. The former speaker of the Supreme Soviet, Ruslan Khasbulatov, who still commands authority in Chechnya, has taken a position of "a plague on both your houses," criticizing both the war and President Aslan Maskhadov.

Eventually the Russians will need a strong Chechen who they can talk to, who cannot be called a stooge of Russia, who has the respect of both the militant section of the population and those who want to reach a deal with Russia. It would help if this person was voted into office in an election called free and fair by international observers. In short, they will need someone more or less like Maskhadov. But I fear that by the time they come round again to realizing this there may not be a Maskhadov any more.

The only other option is to start again, as they did in 1816, by appointing a Russian viceroy and commander-in-chief of the Caucasus such as Yermolov. Yermolov was probably even more brutal than the current generation of Russian generals. As he was building Grozny, he declared "I desire that the terror of my name should guard our frontiers more potently than chains or fortresses, that my word should be for the natives a law more inevitable than death."

As the generals of 1999 set about destroying Yermolov's city, they should ask themselves what his strategy of total force did for Chechnya and Russia.

Thomas de Waal is the co-author with Carlotta Gall of "Chechnya: A Small Victorious War." He is a reporter with the BBC World Service. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.