Chechens’ Shifting Allegiances Blur Lines of Battle

Moscow Times

Wednesday, Mar. 24, 2004. Page 4

Chechens’ Shifting Allegiances Blur Lines of Battle

By Oliver Bullough

Adlan Khasanov / Reuters

Aslan Maskhadov gesturing at a 1999 rally in Grozny. Akhmad Kadyrov, second
from left, later switched sides to support Moscow – Photo

GROZNY — 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 toward Moscow.

Moscow’s bearded foot soldiers 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 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 centered around a referendum
last year to anchor Chechnya in Russia and internationally criticized
elections, which were won by Akhmad 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 Moscow.

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, 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.

Hard-line 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,” rebel envoy Akhmed Zakayev
said 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.”