14 - 20 October 1999
Issue No. 451
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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The thorn in Russia's fleshBy Abdel-Malik Khalil
Moscow has stepped up its assault on the breakaway republic of Chechnya, and is now determined to carry out its plan of totally destroying the Islamist opposition which hopes to form an independent Islamic federation in Chechnya and Dagestan. Despite signs that popular resistance to Russian rule runs far deeper than the Islamist minority groups, Russia continues to dismiss all resistance as the work of criminals and terrorists.
Russia has closely copied NATO's tactics in the Kosovo war. Like NATO, they are bombing and destroying industrial centres, fuel depots and communication networks throughout Chechnya, in preparation for the launching of a ground offensive.
This "low risk" approach has already resulted in the death of a great many civilians, as well as forcing 150,000 people to leave their homes and flee to the neighbouring republic of Ingushetia, whose own very limited economic resources mean it is now facing a severe crisis as it struggles to try and absorb the flood of refugees.
Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov insists that he did not issue orders to anyone telling them to enter Dagestan and occupy a number of villages in the neighbouring republic. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin meanwhile is demanding that Maskhadov hand over the separatist Chechen rebels to the Russians and openly condemn the activities of rebel leaders Shamil Basayev and Amir Khatab. Putin has not yet received a reply to his ultimatum.
Putin has also gone on record, saying that he does not accept or feel obliged to honour the peace deal that was signed between Maskhadov for the Chechens and Alexander Lebed, then Russian secretary for national security.
The prime minister has also made it clear that he does not trust Maskhadov, and has since met with former Chechen members of parliament known as supporters of Russian policy in the Northern Caucasus, asking them to form a Chechen government-in-exile to stand against the democratically-elected government in Grozny.
As a response to the Russian invasion, Maskhadov for his part has asked foreign observers to investigate Russia's claims that Chechnya was sheltering terrorists.
However, the response to Maskhadov's plea has been weak, after Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov declared to all who would listen that the Chechen war was a purely internal Russian affair, and that no foreign interference would be accepted, even if it were well-intentioned.
Maskhadov riposted by forwarding a request to the secretary general of NATO, asking him either to help the Chechen leadership start face-to-face negotiations with the Russians, or to support their resistance to the Russian invasion.
Meanwhile, Boris Yeltsin was transferred to hospital after suffering a new bout of severe influenza, high blood pressure and fever. Not only his body, but his government too would seem to be faced with a number of intractable problems.
Firstly, there is the financial collapse that has plagued Russia ever since August 1995. This has resulted in the long-term depreciation of the Russian currency from seven roubles to 25 against the dollar, despite the efforts of consecutive governments to stabilise the situation.
The Russian government budget for this year, meanwhile, is only US$21 billion, whereas the yearly interest payments on the national debt amount to nearly US$17.5 billion. If the state pays up on time, it will be bankrupted, while if payment is delayed, both the debt and the interest will only increase yet further.
At the same time, the US has refused to allow any of the international financial institutions to provide new loans to Russia until it finds out in detail where these loans go and how they are spent.
Another growing problem is the spread of corruption. Millions of dollars of hard currency have been shifted out of Russia in recent years, and many signs point to the involvement of people close to President Yeltsin.
The severity of the crises faced by the Russian government means that it desperately needs a rapid victory in Chechnya. Whether this war turns out to be a catastrophic gamble, or a brilliant tactic that will save the administration, is yet to be seen. But to judge by the Russian military's historical form, the future for Moscow -- and for Chechnya itself -- is far from bright.