Yet, deterioration of relations between Moscow and Grozny is manifest

Despite all statements of the top state executives on the “necessity to preserve peace” in Chechnya and inadmissibility of hostilities there, official Moscow did take some unilateral steps to isolate the republic. Clearly, the measures will weaken President Maskhadov’s positions and facilitate clannish struggle there. Possible contacts between the Chechen leader and Russian authorities are being prepared only, but Internal Troops in North Ossetia, Stavropolie, and Dagestan were already put on a round-the-clock alert (those quartered in the security zone close to the Caucasus territories bordering on Chechnya, anyway).

Major transport communications in southern Russia – the Trans-Caucasus highway, Military Georgian Road, and Rostov – Baku federal highway are patrolled, and all transit transport means from the Caucasus to Russia are inspected. In an attempt to prevent terrorist acts North Ossetian, Stavropol, and Dagestani security ministries and departments established close contacts with law enforcement agencies of other Caucasus regions, units of the 58th Russian Army and formations of the Vladikavkaz and Kaspiisk border detachments.

Most flights to Chechnya are cancelled, railroad traffic between Moscow and Grozny and all transit transportation via Chechnya are suspended. Trains bound for Dagestan and the Caucasus go through the town of Astrakhan and Volgograd, these days.

It should be noted that all these steps are taken by civilian authorities. On March 11, Defense Minister Igor Sergeev said it was still possible to avoid deployment of the Armed Forces in resolution of the Chechen problem “provided we kept President Maskhadov in office”.

Sergeev denied allegations that troops of the Caucasus Military District were being fully staffed and moved closer to the Chechen borders.

Sergeev: Units of the Caucasus Military District are fully staffed as they are and remain at their permanent location sites, combat ready as ever.

The minister didn’t deny however that some additional security measures had been in effect in the Caucasus Military District. At the same time some news agencies report that Sergeev allegedly cancelled his trip to India which was slated for March 11. It was announced that the minister’s visit to India might be postponed “… in light of deterioration of the situation around Chechnya after the abduction of Russian Interior Ministry Representative General Gennadi Shpigun… The postponement is now discussed with New Delhi. The decision has not been made yet.”

Defense Ministry’s PR department neither confirms nor denies the information. Therefore we cannot eliminate a possibility that the Armed Forces may be deployed in Moscow’s plans to isolate Chechnya and to take some other “unilateral” steps. If they are, Sergeev is needed here, in Moscow.

It is not clear in detail exactly what the federal center is going to do about Chechnya but introduction of a state of emergency regime along the borders of the runaway republics seems like a safe bet. That’s what Ethnic Affairs Minister Ramazan Abdulatipov announced when he went on air recently. Like most other federal politicians, Abdulatipov eliminates a possibility that Moscow may decide to close federal pipelines or turn off juice.

Ramazan Abdulatipov: The people should not be made a hostage of the situation…

It certainly seems that Senior Deputy Premier Vadim Gustov agrees with the minister.

Gustov: Bandits are not the Chechen people as such. We do not mean to wage a war, you understand, but we have to answer a simple question: How do we go about protecting our own citizens? When a state executive is abducted from a plane, it’s utter lawlessness. It’s wrong that just anybody can and does threaten the president and the government there and does not fear any retribution.

According to Gustov, Russia lately has been doing everything possible to normalize situation in Chechnya: 411 million “live” rubles were transferred from the federal center to the republic in 1998, gas and electricity are delivered there free of charge, pensions are paid, and funds for the work of federal structures are available. At the same time, Chechens abduct “kids, military, and state executives”. To quote Gustov, “it’s a throwback from civilization to the 12th or 13th century.”

It should be noted that Gustov gave this particular interview on March 10, before the sitting of the Cabinet dedicated to the Chechen problem. Then Gustov didn’t rule out a possibility of a paramilitary operation to release Shpigun. Yet, the government decided against the use of force in the release of the general abducted in Grozny even though Moscow retained the right to take harsh steps with regard to Chechnya.

Actually, men (and state executives) were already abducted in Chechnya before. What forced Moscow to turn to the problem now? Some observers and specialists associate Shpigun’s abduction with attempts of anti-presidential forces in Chechnya to discredit Maskhadov in the eyes of the federal center. Moscow’s and Grozny’s response to the abduction and possible attempts to release the general (who was a commander of filtration camps during Chechen war) may provoke indignation of the society. Particularly of those Chechens whose relatives were killed or wounded in the war or are now kept in custody by Russian law enforcement agencies.

Anyway, anti-Maskhadov forces are concentrating in Grozny, now. In early February, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, Shamil Basayev, Movladi Udugov, Vaja Arsanov, and other representatives of the military-political “establishment” elected an organization committee of 30 persons which provided a basis for the Shura, a state religious structure operating in Chechnya parallel to the presidential regime.

The Shura has already addressed Maskhadov demanding disbandment of the parliament and transition to the Shar’ah rule. It was replied that President Aslan Maskhadov had absolutely no inclination to “allow dual power” in the republic. As a counterweight to the Shura, Maskhadov formed a new state structure, namely the Council whose very first sitting was dedicated to definition of further mechanisms of introduction of the Shar’ah rule into the power vertical. Major steps leading to adoption of a new Shar’ah Constitution of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria were discussed as well. Along with that, President Maskhadov does not even contemplate disbandment of the parliament. The Council set a three-year long transition period “until complete and absolute introduction of the Shar’ah in the republic” was accomplished and new presidential and parliamentary elections. Until then, Maskhadov and deputies of the parliament will continue implementation of their duties.

Meanwhile, it will be wrong to say that Maskhadov has absolute control in the republic. Basayev, for one, has access to the media and often goes on air on Grozny TV with anti-presidential statements.

In response to Maskhadov’s assurances to the effect that criminals responsible for Shpigun’s abduction were actively sought, Basayev promised on March 8 that an open trial would await General Shpigun which, he didn’t doubt, would pass a death sentence. Former Vice President Arsanov went on air right after Basayev and announced that armed formations had been put on alert on the decision of the Shura. Arsanov was quoted as saying that commanders of all five fronts had already received memos with plans of actions “in case of an aggression”. According to Arsanov, Chechens would “take adequate measures on the territory of the Russian Federation” if Chechnya were attacked.

Arsanov: We have both means and determination…

This way Moscow’s support of Aslan Maskhadov is one of the major means of stabilizing situation in Chechnya. Of course, no stabilization is possible without federal center’s economic steps with regard to Grozny but the economic crisis, planned “harsh measures”, transport isolation of the republic, possibility of a state of emergency along the borders – all these factors will only facilitate irritation and separatist tendencies in Chechnya.

Financial support of the opposition by radical Vakhabit organizations will also accelerate the growth of discontent and dissatisfaction with the federal center. “Firearms factor” may also play its part in further destabilization. When the authorities are clearly weak and unemployment is sweeping, use of firearms becomes the major source of income. According to the data compiled by the Federal Security Service, these days there are approximately 60,000 firearms in Chechnya, over 2 million ordnance (bullets, hand grenades, anti-personnel and anti-tank mines, etc), several dozens tanks, armored personnel carriers, and battle infantry vehicles, and several dozens artillery pieces with shells (no less than 200 shells per a cannon). Of course, it is not enough for large-scale hostilities but quite sufficient for terrorist acts, local combat, explosions, etc. And most experts do not doubt that it all is quite possible in Chechnya and nearby territories in near future already.