Chechen determination to achieve full independence from Russia was emphasized on February 1 when Aslan Maskhadov, president of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, laughed off suggestions that he would take a seat in the Upper House of the Russian parliament. Speaking after a meeting with Ivan Rybkin, Moscow’s chief negotiator with Ichkeria, Maskhadov said that the formalising of Ichkeria’s independence would be one of his main priorities, alongwith rebuilding his country’s shattered infrastructure, economy and society.
Rybkin’s invitation to Maskhadov to sit in Russia’s parliament was a continuation of Moscow’s stubborn pretence that Ichkeria is still a part of the Russian Federation and that the elections had been for the leader and regional assembly of a Russian autonomous region rather than the president and parliament of an independent country.
Maskhadov’s victory in the January 27 elections was officially confirmed by the Ichkerian Electoral Commission on February 2. The final figures showed that Maskhadov had received 59.3 percent of the vote. Former mujahideen field commander Shamil Basayev received 23.5 percent while acting president Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev got 10.1 percent. The parliamentary elections held on the same day were less conclusive; only four candidates won outright victory. A second round of polling in the other 59 constituencies will be held on February 15.
The Ichkerian administration’s successful staging of elections just months after the end of an intensely destructive war was a remarkable achievement in its own right. Polling stations were open from 7 am to 10 pm throughout the country and special stations were established along the borders with Ingushetia, Russia and Dagestan so refugees could come and vote. 407,699 of the 513,585 registered voters took part, a turn-out of 79.4 percent.
Russia’s central election commission had been denied any involvement in the elections’ administration; instead the polling had been monitored by over 200 representatives from the Council of Europe, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and other international agencies, who declared the elections "democratic and legitimate". The international agencies’ involvement-- at the Ichkerians’ invitation--came despite Russian protests that the elections were an "internal Russian affair".
Maskhadov’s victory could, therefore, hardly have been more convincing. He will be inaugurated in the Ichkerian capital Dzhokar- Ghala (previously Grozny, until it was renamed on January 23 in honour of Shaheed Dzhokar Dudayev) on February 12, immediately after Eid al-Fitr.
The challenges he faces, however, are numerous and immense. The main one, of course, is to formalise Ichkeria’s independence without further bloodshed. Ichkeria’s independence was declared by Dzhokar Dudayev in October 1991. Ichkeria did not sign the 1992 Russian Federation Treaty, and it took no part in Russia’s 1993 Constitutional Referendum. Chechens view Russia’s attack on Ichkeria in December 1994 as a foreign invasion and the Khasavyurt settlement which ended the war in August 1996 as a deal between two sovereign states. They realise, however, that Russian recognition of Ichkeria’s independence is also vital before its international status can be normalised.
Although Ichkeria’s de facto independence and the true nature of the Khasavyurt settlement have both been tacitly acknowledged by senior Russian leaders, Moscow still hopes to prevent formal independence. This is partly for economic reasons--Ichkeria is rich in oil and other minerals--and partly because of the precedent it would set to other non-Russian regions within the Russian federation.
The Khasavyurt settlement deferred the question of Ichkeria’s constitutional status "for up to five years". Moscow hopes this will give them time to re-integrate Ichkeria into Russia by economic and other indirect means; for the Chechens, this is no more than a waiting period pending formal independence.
Both sides are now taking a two-pronged approach. Moscow wants on the one-hand to be seen to be assisting the Ichkerian government in the hope of persuading them that remaining within Russia is in their best interests; on the other hand they also have an interest in undermining the Dzhokar-Ghala government in order to prevent it becoming too comfortable and confident. To this end, Moscow is already encouraging of Cossacks of the south-Russian region of Stavropol Krai to demand parts of Ichkeria, notably the west bank of the Terek River in the north of the country. Russia’s notorious mafia is also being encouraged to take advantage of Ichkeria’s war-ravaged society.
The Chechens want to get all they can from the Russians in the form of economic and other assistance (which they see as reparations for the huge damage caused to Ichkeria during the war) and at the same time to make their de facto independence impregnable. For the Russians, the longer the process takes, the better; the Chechens prefer to move forward as quickly as possible, for Russian pressure will only increase as the five-year schedule runs out.
The other immediate problem Maskhadov faces will be the reconstruction of Ichkeria’s infrastructure and economy, systematically destroyed during the Russian invasion and occupation. Until 1991, Ichkeria was an industrially developed area producing 1.2 billion gallons of oil a year; even in 1993 it produced 700,000 gallons. Now its oil facilities lie in ruins, as do all other industrial and economic plants. Every other aspect of the country’s economy is similarly destroyed. Obtaining Russian reparations to rebuild this infrastructure will be one of Maskhadov’s priorities. This process has already been started; a preliminary agreement was signed in November.
At the same time, Maskhadov’s government will face many of the usual problems faced by countries newly liberated from imperial rule. Foremost among these is the rebuilding of civil society, not only after 20 months of incredibly destructive war, but also after nearly 150 years of Russian rule. The establishment of shari’ah courts to replace the Russian legislative system has already been begun. The re-structuring of the education system has also been launched. All other parts of the society will also have to be rebuilt and cleansed of Russian influences. This is a task which few other Muslim countries have achieved in decades of far more favourable circumstances.
The key question may be whether Maskhadov’s government will be able to command the undivided loyalty of the Chechen people now as Dzhokar Dudayev and Zelimkhan Yanderbiyev did during the earlier phases of Ichkeria’s struggle for freedom. Many observers are already highlighting divisions between Maskhadov and other Chechen leaders; this may or may not prove to be wishful thinking. The Chechens’ victory over Russia is often compared favourably with that of the Afghan mujahideen. The Afghan experience sobering example of the problems that the Chechens may yet face.
Muslimedia - February 16-28, 1997