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Breakaway Chechnya Remains a Challenge for Russia - 2002-12-19

President Vladimir Putin faced many questions on the situation in Chechnya when he held a live, televised, conversation with people across Russia Thursday.

President Putin said he wants to find a way to end the more than three year long conflict in Chechnya, a war that has killed thousands of Russian soldiers, civilians and Chechen rebels and shows no sign of stopping.

But the president also repeated his refusal to negotiate with the Chechen rebels, who he calls terrorists. Rather, he said he wants to find a way to hand control of local Chechnya affairs back to the Chechen people. President Putin did not say exactly how he will do that, but there are plans to hold a referendum and elect a president of republic.

His comments came on the heels of a public controversy over the dismissal of the general in charge of the Chechnya operation, Gennady Troshev.

Earlier this week, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov offered General Troshev a transfer to Siberia. The general publicly rejected the offer, saying it would be a betrayal of the military and the people in Chechnya.

President Putin then dismissed General Troshev, saying he could not allow such a conflict between a general and the defense minister.

Russian defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer says the Kremlin is not happy with how the war in Chechnya is proceeding and some officials see General Troshev as a hindrance to negotiating an end to the conflict. "If you want to begin to negotiate something, of course, you have to remove General Troshev, who is accused by international human rights groups of committing war crimes and mass murder of civilians," he said.

But Mr. Felgenhauer and other analysts point out that it may not be that simple. General Troshev has also been mentioned as a possible candidate for President of Chechnya in elections scheduled to happen this spring.

The director of the Moscow office of the Center for Defense Information, Ivan Safranchuk, says General Troshev, who is a native of Chechnya, is popular among some Chechens. But many other Chechens view him with suspicion. They accuse the Russian military of gross human rights violations under his command.

Mr. Safranchuk says that by going against the military and the president, General Troshev may have gained some points in his presidential campaign. "He's now presented as someone who wants to bring peace to Chechnya, but he's dismissed by the military Russian leadership," he said. "So I think this is more a supportive factor for his Chechen presidency ambitions."

The public way in which General Troshev rejected his transfer to Siberia has also raised questions about the military and its civilian control. Defense Minister Ivanov is the first civilian to run the military, which during Soviet times was answerable to no one but itself.

So far, it is not clear whether General Troshev will be assigned to another post within the military or fired from the army altogether.