Aware that verbal bluster, for which the Russians are notorious, could easily degenerate into a full-scale war with the Chechens, political leaders in Moscow quickly distanced themselves from remarks by interior minister Anatoly Kulikov. Accusing Chechen gunmen of having carried out an attack on December 22 against a Russian tank unit in neighbouring Daghestan, Kulikov threatened on January 8 to carry out ‘pre-emptive strikes’ against what he called ‘bandit bases’ in Chechenya.
The Chechens immediately put thousands of troops on alert and warned Moscow of dire consequences, reminding it of the humiliation the Russian army had suffered in the 21-month war. Under a peace accord signed on August 31, 1996, which provided Moscow a face-saving formula for retreat - the last Russian soldier left the Islamic Republic in the Caucasus a year ago - decision on Chechenya’s formal independence was deferred for five years.
Russian president Boris Yeltsin, barely able to function because of ill-health, realised the gravity of the situation created by Kulikov’s intemperate remarks, immediately rushed deputy prime minister Ramazan Adbulatipov to Djohar-Ghala (formerly Grozny), the Chechen capital. Abdulatipov, the only Muslim in Yeltsin’s cabinet, held discussions with the Chechen leadership and promised to speed up economic help to rebuild Chechenya that should have arrived months earlier.
Abdulatipov also announced that Yeltsin would meet Cacucasus elders to discuss regional situation at the end of January. He said ‘It will be a very useful dialogue.’ The Russian deputy prime minister said, ‘the president intends to consult the most reputable elders and explain to them the situation that has been created in the region and the country.’
The meeting would take place either in Moscow, or the southern city of Pyatigorsk in the Stavropol region, or in the Dagestan capital of Makhachkala, Abdulatipov said. Yeltsin was supposed to have visited Chechenya, now renamed Ichkeria, in early January but it was postponed because of his poor health and disagreement over how he would be received in Djohar-Ghala. President Aslan Maskhadov had made clear in December that Yeltsin must recognise Chechenya’s independence and deal with him as the head of an independent Republic of Ichkeria which is now ruled by Shari’ah law.
As if to underscore their independence completely, Maskhadov appointed Shamil Basayev, hero of the 21-month war, as prime minister on January 1 and asked him to head a new government. Previously Maskhadov held both posts - prime minister as well as president. Basayev is feared as well as hated in Moscow.
The Kremlin czars have denounced him as an ‘outlaw’ and ‘terrorist.’ They now have to deal with the very man who was primarily responsible for defeating their heavily-armed troops. Basayev gained further distinction by leading the final assault on Grozny in early August 1996 which sealed the fate of the Russian occupation forces. With less than 1,000 mujahideen, he defeated the 12,000-strong Russian army in the capital, and took 7,000 prisoners. After this humiliation, the Russians decided to cut their losses and quit the Caucasus Republic.
It was Alexander Lebed, Russia’s former national security chief, who negotiated the deal with Maskhadov, saving whatever little honour Moscow had left to extricate it from the Caucasus embroglio. Lebed acted honourably, condemning the futility of the Chechen adventure. Yeltsin, however, fired him soon after this agreement, fearing the former general’s popularity.
Moscow is now trying to extricate itself from the difficult situation Kulikov has created. The interior minister had also served in Chechenya without distinction. He was removed from there and later appointed to the cabinet. Bitter about his experiences there, he has been trying to muddy the waters with the Chechens without thinking about its consequences.
Abdulatipov admitted this during his televised remarks from Djohar-Ghala (Grozny) when he said ‘there have been too much politics in Moscow’s relationships with Chechenya and little work. We came to do concrete work.’ He also revealed that they had ‘managed to agree many issues which remain only to be put down on paper.’ Abdulatipov did not elaborate.
When asked about Abdulatipov’s remarks, Chechen prime minister Shamil Basayev also expressed willingness to cooperate, but said it was mainly up to Moscow. ‘Chechenya expects Russia to fulfil its obligations, especially in the economic sphere.... Then cooperation in other areas will develop successfully,’ he said.
Given the presence of such hardliners as Kulikov in the Kremlin, this may not be easy. Further proof of this was provided when the chief of staff of Russian armed forces, general Anatoly Kvashnin, visited troops in the area, including the unit that was attacked, a few days after Abdulatipov’s departure from Djohar-Ghala.
Muslimedia: February 1-15, 1998