The fighting between Russian security forces and guerillas that erupted Monday near the Chechen border poses problems for all involved parties. The Russian government, the autonomous Chechen government and the guerillas all stand to lose in what Agence France Presse (AFP) calls one of the years worst outbreaks involving the former Soviet republic.
Reports indicate that four Russian officials were killed and three were kidnapped in an overnight attack near Chechnya and inside the neighboring Russian republic of Dagestan. Approximately 50 armed guerillas took part in the attack and Russian authorities say eight were killed, according to the BBC on August 3. Guerillas operating from Chechnya have thrust themselves into the public spotlight following Chechnyas bloody war for independence in 1994-1996. In the midst of severe economic crisis and general governmental ineptitude, guerillas have directed a series of attacks against Russian officials, foreign nationals and even citizens from neighboring Russian republics and Chechnya itself. The hostages are generally ransomed for money and then released, later telling stories of near starvation, forced labor and brutal beatings. According to Judith Ingram, writing for AP on August 2, "kidnapping has become the main means of financing arsenals and armies" for the guerillas. But attempts to apprehend the guerillas are often frustrated by ongoing unease between Russia and the former Soviet republic of Chechnya.
Although Russian troops left Chechnya in humiliation in 1996, Russia has refused to recognize Chechen independence and the state has yet to be recognized by foreign countries. Tensions remain high between Chechnya and Russia and Russian attempts to apprehend the guerillas are often met with suspicion by Chechen authorities who fear another Russian invasion. Russias Interfax news agency Saturday quoted Chechen Foreign Minister Ilyas Akhmadov as saying Chechnya is on the lookout for a suspected "new aggression" on the part of Russia and would beef up its border patrols.
Of course, the involvement of Russian security officials in Chechnyas internal affairs would not be an issue if Chechnya was capable of putting an end to the kidnappings and armed attacks themselves. But the newly autonomous state was largely devastated by the war that left 50,000 dead and ruined much of the countrys infrastructure and facilities. The central government is in dire financial straits and is perhaps unable to stem the tide of crime without placing insupportable stress on an already thin budget.
But Chechen authorities have declared their will to put an end to the lawlessness. On July 31, Chechnya signed an agreement with the Russian republic of Stavropol to limit the movement of criminal gangs across
Chechnyas borders and end attacks on the oil line running through Chechnya from the Caspian Sea. Referring to the outbreaks of guerilla violence on the Chechen borders, Chechen First Deputy Interior Minister Khasan Khatsiyev said, "We have shared goals and objectives [with neighboring Russian republics] and, most importantly, a desire to reverse the situation that is evolving on the border," as reported by Russias ITAR-Tass on July 31.
Russia has promised much needed aid to Chechnya, but ties any financial aid to an end to Chechen independence claims. According to ITAR-Tass on March 18, Russian authorities believe that "Moscow should help to rebuild Chechnya's economy but that Chechens must end talk about independence." But feelings of rancor left over from the war, in which Amnesty International reported widespread human rights abuses on the part of Russia including attacks on civilians, no doubt preclude any forsaking of independence for financial gain. With financial aid from other sources limited by the fact its independence has not been recognized, Chechnya can not, however, remain independent forever without first securing some sort of financial independence. The guerilla attacks serve to highlight the Chechen governments inability to respond to the basic need of order and protection of its own citizens.
While the most immediate threat seems posed against the Chechen government, both the Russian government and even the guerillas themselves cannot hope to benefit from the conflict. Russia has had several high level diplomats kidnapped by the guerillas and, despite pre-emptive strikes involving helicopter gun-ships and other sophisticated weaponry, Russia has been unable to curtail the activities of the guerillas. The lawlessness undermines Russias claims to control the breakaway republic. And there is some indication the instability is affecting the whole of Russia. The Moscow Times reported on Tuesday that former Russian general and security chief, Alexander Lebed, warned that tensions in the North Caucasus could cause the imposition of a state of emergency throughout Russia. Lebed reportedly said the instability in Chechnya was spreading to neighboring republics such as Dagestan and Ingushetia.
The alleged guerillas themselves have little to benefit from the conflict. Aside from immediate financial gain from kidnapping, the ongoing lawlessness threatens to undermine the Islamic government in Chechnya and cause a reassertion of Russian rule over the republic. If the guerillas are intent on repeating events in Afghanistan and taking control of Chechnya themselves, it is doubtful they can amass enough wealth and weapons to overthrow the government before Russia clamps down and eradicates all opposition from the Muslim populace.
It is clear the recent escalation in violence is detrimental to all parties involved. While each side no doubt views its actions as a simple reaction to an enemy, the situation is in danger of spiraling out of control. By far the biggest losers in the equation is the Chechen government, caught as it is between subservience to Russia on the one hand and devastating societal chaos on the other.
Zakariya Wright is a staff writer at iviews.com