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Putin Continues Hard-Line Policy Toward Chechnya - 2004-10-14


For years, Chechnya has been a major problem for Russian, and before them, Soviet leaders. In this report, VOA Senior Correspondent André de Nesnera looks at the Chechen policy of President Vladimir Putin.

In 1999, when Vladimir Putin was prime minister in President Boris Yeltsin's government, he ordered Russian troops into Chechnya in an effort to defeat separatist forces. That move ousted democratically elected Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov.

Experts say Mr. Putin sent troops to Chechnya because Chechen rebel leader Shamil Basayev and his fighters crossed into the neighboring Dagestan republic. Mr. Putin considered that incursion an act of terrorism. Since that time, Mr. Putin has sought to depict Russia's fight against Chechen separatists in the context of the global war on terrorism. He promised Russians a two-week war, but Russian forces are still in Chechnya five years later.

For their part, Chechen rebels have turned to terrorism, blowing up aircraft, exploding bombs on Moscow's streets and subways, taking hostages in one of the city's theaters. The latest example occurred last month in Beslan, North Ossetia. More than 330 people were killed, half of them children, after Chechen rebels attacked a school. A three-day standoff ended with a battle between Chechen separatists and Russian forces.

Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev claimed responsibility for the attack. Former Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov condemned it.

President Putin said the Beslan attack proved there is absolutely no negotiating with terrorists. He made that point last month during a meeting with Western reporters and Russia experts, a meeting attended by Harvard University's Marshall Goldman.

"He was emotional about it. He was profane. And this has been widely quoted, but he said: 'When you, when the Americans invite Osama bin Laden to the White House to talk about negotiating, then we'll invite Maskhadov and Basayev to the Kremlin," he said.

Mr. Putin was elected president four years ago promising to resolve the Chechen crisis. Experts say his hard-line policy is simple: no compromise and no negotiating.

Glen Howard, president of the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington DC research organization specializing in Russia, says you cannot compare Aslan Maskhadov to Osama bin Laden.

"Osama bin Laden has never been elected head of anything. At least the people of Chechnya elected Maskhadov as a democratic leader. Those were elections that were monitored by the West," he said. "He has legitimacy amongst some parts of Chechnya. There is no doubt about that. But not only that: Maskhadov has over 24 times called for peace talks and negotiations. He wants to peacefully end the war. He wants to find a solution. Bin Laden doesn't want a solution with the West."

But up to now, says Mr. Howard, Mr. Putin has refused to negotiate.

Michael McFaul, Russia expert with the Hoover Institution Washington D.C. office, says Mr. Putin will have to soften his hard-line position.

"Putin is making a giant mistake in assuming that all Chechens support those terrorists in Beslan and share their ideological view on the world. They do not," he said. "In fact, most have denounced those terrorist attacks, and I'm certain that at some point, he's going to have to negotiate with some legitimate leaders from Chechnya to have real peace and stability in Chechnya. I just don't know when that is going to happen."

Many experts say Mr. Putin will have to show statesmanlike qualities to work toward a solution. Stephen Cohen, professor of Russian history at New York University, says there is a historical precedent.

"The closest analogue would have been France and Algeria, because there were so many French citizens living in Algeria that France regarded Algeria as part of France, just as Russians have regarded Chechnya as part of Russia," he said. "But it required the collapse of the Fourth Republic, [Charles] de Gaulle's coming to power, for an extraordinary act of leadership that negotiated politically an end to that and set Algeria on its way to independence."

However, Professor Cohen says Mr. Putin will have to be very careful if he decides to negotiate an end to the conflict. He says many Interior Ministry troops and members of the regular army feel humiliated by their inability to defeat the Chechens.

"Institutions and people get over these things, but at the moment, they would resist to the end," he said. "Remember, the French army - segments of the French army - tried to kill, assassinate, de Gaulle because of Algeria. So Putin would need to watch his back."

Mr. Cohen, along with other experts, says at the present time, there are no signs that President Putin will change his hard-line policy toward Chechnya.

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