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Russia, Chechnya Still Quarreling

February 8, 1998

MOSCOW (AP) _ For President Boris Yeltsin, Chechnya is the headache that won’t go away.

When the Russians and Chechens stopped fighting in 1996, their peace deal prudently put off consideration of the key issue of Chechen independence until 2001, with hopes that tempers would cool by then.

But these days, even that distant deadline is looking hard to meet.

Humiliated Russian troops left the Muslim republic in southern Russia more than a year ago, but periodic talks have produced more friction than agreement. There are also fissures within Yeltsin’s government, where moderates feel economic aid will soothe war wounds, while hardliners want a security cordon to seal off the rebellious territory.

In Chechnya, the guerrillas-turned-bureaucrats are struggling to impose law and order while foreigners are kidnapped at a rate reminiscent of Beirut a decade ago. The capital, Grozny, remains a pile of rubble and the economy is limited mostly to small-scale trading in outdoor bazaars.

``There is still a collision between the two sides. The Chechens insist on independence and Yeltsin can’t give it,″ said Vitaly Naumkin, head of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Moscow think tank. ``I think the status quo will hold for the foreseeable future.″

Chechnya’s disarray is best illustrated by the unending stream of kidnappings.

About 200 hostages were freed last year, but 45 people still are held, said Magomed Magomadov, the chief of Chechnya’s anti-kidnapping unit.

The abductions have driven out most Russians and foreigners, including aid workers and journalists.

With fewer foreigners hanging around, kidnappers have set their sights on nearby regions. The top regional U.N. official for refugee aid, Vincent Cochetel of France, was seized Jan. 29 from a neighboring republic, joining 10 other foreign hostages.

Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, a highly respected rebel leader during the war, has tried to crack down on the bandits and even has imposed the death penalty for kidnapping. But to little avail.

The Red Cross, which had one of the largest aid operations in Chechnya, pulled all its foreign staff out after six workers were killed execution-style in the group’s compound in December 1996.

``We still maintain some operations with our local staff, but we have had to withdraw to a large extent,″ said Victoria Zotikova, a spokeswoman with the Red Cross in Moscow. ``The needs there are still quite great.″

The Chechens are inveterate traders, and this has kept the markets stocked with essential foods. The schools and courts function, but just barely. The government has imposed Islamic law, banned alcohol sales and told women to dress modestly, but its lack of resources has produced uneven results.

The entire Chechen conflict is full of bitter irony. When the Soviet Union imploded in 1991, 15 countries were created without any warfare.

But tiny Chechnya, with just more than 1 million inhabitants, is the place where Moscow decided it no longer could give up any more territory. Twenty-one months of fighting and one year of an awkward peace have resolved nothing.

Moscow is willing to grant Chechnya ``maximum autonomy″ within the Russian federation. But after winning the war, the Chechens don’t want to settle for anything less than full sovereignty.

Maskhadov, Chechnya’s president, sought to strengthen the government’s authority last month by appointing controversial guerrilla fighter Shamil Basayev as acting prime minister.

The fiery Basayev is a hero to young Chechens for his daring guerrilla raids during the war. But the Russians consider him public enemy No. 1 for a mass hostage-taking at a hospital outside Chechnya in 1995.

``Basayev could be quite effective, particularly among the young armed men of Chechnya who are likely to listen to him,″ said Naumkin, the Russian analyst. ``He could make the place more stable.″

Yeltsin’s hawkish interior minister, Anatoly Kulikov, is the Moscow government’s most outspoken critic of the Chechen leadership, but even he has reluctantly recognized Russia’s inability to impose its will.

``We must look truth in the eye _ Chechnya is a territory where Russian laws and Russian government don’t work,″ Kulikov said recently.

Kulikov suggested Russia officially define Chechnya as a ``rebel province″ and construct a security cordon around it pending negotiations on its political status. The talks, he conceded, could take ``several years, and maybe decades.″

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