Grozny's Thankless Task




Chechnya is in the news again. And yet there are few if any people in Moscow who have any understanding of this perpetually misunderstood land. It is as if the Russian analysts are staring at it through the wrong end of a telescope, getting all their calculations awry. I was forcibly struck by this during a two-day visit to Grozny last month, my first since the presidential elections of January 1997. I left in a state of increased confusion and with a humble appreciation of how complex and impenetrable Chechnya now is.


This was in striking contrast to the confident simplifications I was reading in Moscow. In particular, I read that Chechnya was on the brink of some kind of "civil war." In fact, the rebels in Chechnya are not a political opposition but scattered local chiefs. Some fairly substantial places like Urus-Martan have lived pretty much independently for the last seven years, irrespective of whoever is in power in Grozny just a few miles away. President Aslan Maskhadov does not face a challenge from forces wishing to overthrow him and take power -- who else would want the thankless job of being leader of this unruly republic? His problem is how to persuade a hundred or so autonomous villages that they should submit to his authority.


The main battle going on in Chechnya at the moment is between those who want to establish some kind of Chechen statehood and control and those who are enjoying the fruits of the anarchy that come with a collapse of central authority. Both Maskhadov and Shamil Basayev belong in this first group -- although, if a Chechen state ever gets formed, they will have very different ideas about what it should look like.


In the second group are the leaders of the kidnap gangs, some of whom are now fabulously rich because of the largest ransom payments they have been getting. There are also the so-called "Wahabbis," which seems to be a catch-all term for all those Chechens and Dagestanis who have started practicing an imported, usually Arab, form of Islam. Sometimes the kidnappers and the Islamists are one and the same. Such allegedly is the ex-fighter Arbi Barayev, who recently fought with Maskhadov's men outside Chechnya's second city Gudermes, and whom the president then forced to come to Grozny to swear allegiance to him shortly afterwards.


There is a third group who are essentially opportunists. In this category I would put former President Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev and also Movladi Udugov, the eternal Chechen spokesman. Once a secularist spin-doctor, he is now a self-appointed Islamist zealot. He was given the post of foreign minister to keep him happy -- although he never goes on foreign trips. But he still maintains good links with Russian journalists and is capable of making ill-timed statements, as when he said recently that Chechnya was applying to join the United Nations (provoking predictable irritation in Moscow).


Maskhadov is juggling all these different elements. His tactic has been to maintain his ideological credentials at home by sticking to a firm line on Chechen independence (although at the moment this is purely symbolic); to keep the Russians involved, because they are the only real potential source of economic investment; to travel abroad in the desperate hope of attracting moral and financial help for his unfortunate republic; and to delay, if possible, openly fighting the rebellious elements in Chechnya until he is stronger for fear of provoking a backlash against him -- as indeed happened after the Gudermes fighting when someone tried to assassinate him.


In many ways things have become worse, not better. The kidnapping epidemic that started in Chechnya has now spread much further afield. That was dramatically proved when the French United Nations official Vincent Cochetel was seized in Vladikavkaz, the capital of a republic openly hostile to Chechnya. It's possible that Cochetel is being held in Chechnya, but he could equally well be in half a dozen other places in the North Caucasus.


"Why should we care?" I can almost hear people saying wearily. The Russians should care because if Maskhadov is further undermined, the instability of Russia's whole southern border on the Caucasus could sink into turmoil. The failure to implement last May's financial accords between Moscow and Grozny has already cost both governments dearly.


The rest of us should also care about the continued suffering of ordinary people, who have seen too much pain already. Being there, it was heartening to again meet the ordinary Chechens, particularly the older generation, who remain the most likeable and dignified people, the most un-Soviet of the Soviet peoples. It is these people who deserve help. Only three nongovernmental organizations are working in Chechnya because the crime situation is so bad (compare that to more than 100 in that other ravaged country, Bosnia); but the poverty feeds on the crime and the crime feeds on the poverty.


I had a long chat with Ruslan Gunayev, an inspirational doctor who runs the Second Children's Hospital in Grozny. He said that tests done by the veterinary service in Grozny and Urus-Martan showed that 54 percent of the cattle had tuberculosis. The milk was being infected and more and more children were getting the disease. The farmers were reluctant to kill their herds because they were their only livelihood. It was useless, said the doctor, to tackle only one part of the problem. It needed a properly funded program to tackle the problem. There are Chechens desperate to solve these problems, but at the moment there are too few people willing to help them.


Thomas de Waal, who reported on Chechnya for The Moscow Times, now works for theBBC World Service.