Who’s the rebel now? Lines blur in Chechnya

FEATURE-Who’s the rebel now? Lines blur in Chechnya

By Oliver Bullough

GROZNY, Russia, March 23 (Reuters) – For Moscow, it is simple: Chechen
rebels are terrorists and must be destroyed.

But on the ground in Chechnya, government supporters and rebels are
sometimes hard to tell apart.

Rebels who change sides are absorbed into the pro-Russian government’s
ranks without question. Many do not demand independence, while the
government is increasingly assertive towards Moscow.

Moscow’s bearded footsoldiers in the region, with their mismatched
uniforms, Kalashnikovs, and habit of firing volleys of gunfire as
wedding parties drive past not only look like the people who defeated
Russia in 1996 — they are the same people.

In Argun, just east of the regional capital Grozny, one 25-year-old
member of the thousands-strong Security Service said most of his
comrades were rebels who had changed sides.

“We nearly all were,” he said, as he leaned against a wall and
chain-smoked. “I only changed sides three months ago, before that I
was up in the hills, dodging the federals.”

Higher rank personnel are crossing over as well.

Top rebel Magomed Khambiyev surrendered this month, faces no criminal
charges and has asked to join Moscow’s side. Officials in Chechnya say
they would welcome him.

Pro-Moscow Chechen President Akhmad Kadyrov’s son Ramzan — the
region’s second most powerful man as head of the Security Service —
said he wanted rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov to come and join the
government as well.

“He is a good military man, let him train our soldiers,” said the
burly 27-year-old in his home village of Tsenteroi in the foothills of
the Caucasus mountains.


President Vladimir Putin vows to destroy the “terrorist” Maskhadov,
and refuses to negotiate with him. His peace plan centred around a
referendum last year to anchor Chechnya in Russia and internationally
criticised elections won by Kadyrov.

Maskhadov spearheaded the drive that forced Moscow first to the
negotiating table and then to grant Chechnya de facto independence in
1997, but Ramzan Kadyrov spoke highly of the former Soviet colonel.

“Maskhadov is an educated man…We need such people and it’s right to
make use of them. He should not be president, but he should be
military commander,” he told reporters.

Politically, the two sides are closer than Putin says. Rebels who ran
Chechnya until Putin sent troops back in 1999 now speak vaguely of
compromise — some form of autonomy within Russia perhaps, with
current guerrillas invited to participate.

Kadyrov, on the other hand, is making increasingly tough demands of

Last month, he demanded Russia pay transit fees for the gas that
crosses Chechen territory on its way to Georgia, Armenia and
Azerbaijan, Russian newspapers reported.

He wants control of the military campaign to be handed to his
government, and his long-term demand that all revenues from Chechen
oil should revert to Grozny is a major stumbling block in Moscow’s
attempts to define Chechnya’s status.


Hardline rebels, who have staged a string of suicide bombings in the
Caucasus and Moscow, refuse to consider any compromise with
Russia. But moderates take a line more conciliatory than Kadyrov’s.

“No one is talking about independence any more,” top rebel envoy
Akhmed Zakayev told Reuters in a recent interview in London, where he
is in exile.

Kadyrov says only former rebels have insight into rebel plans required
to catch their former comrades-in-arms. But Zakayev says the presence
of former separatists in Kadyrov’s ranks has undermined Moscow’s rule.

“Money for our armed forces comes from Russia, it comes via Kadyrov’s
administration. There is not one minister, manager or village head who
does not give us money,” he said.

“While the Kadyrov administration continues, we will never have
trouble with our finances.”

03/22/04 21:03 ET