Feeling the heat

Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev in happier times.  

RUSSIA HAS emerged as the biggest winner in the global war on terrorism. It helped Moscow eliminate the Taliban threat to Central Asia, increase its influence in Afghanistan, and forge a new partnership with the West. But most important, it set the stage for breaking the stalemate in Russia's war in Chechnya.

Moscow's second attempt to crush the separatists in Chechnya has claimed the lives of over 3,500 of its troops and 11,000 rebels during the 25-month-long campaign, according to official figures. Over 40,000 troops deployed in the breakaway region have so far been unable to crush the rebel resistance sustained by a steady flow of cash and mercenaries from Muslim countries. ``Russia is much more interested in the complete defeat of the gangs in Chechnya than in the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden,'' Russia's Defence Minister, Mr. Sergei Ivanov, confessed recently.

The September 11 terrorist attacks on America cast the Chechen conflict in a new light. Positioning Russia as a key American ally in the coalition's war in Afghanistan, the President, Mr. Vladimir Putin, linked the extent of its involvement with the coalition to the level of ``mutual understanding'' on terrorism.

The West was forced to reassess its view of Russia's military operation in Chechnya as a ruthless suppression of a national liberation movement. One by one, Western leaders admitted that Moscow was facing ``a real terrorist threat'' from Chechen militants who had been trained by Arab terrorists, had links with Osama bin Laden and were financed by a web of Islamic charities.

The West not only agreed that the war in Chechnya had a terrorist element, but moved to cut off the funds that helped fuel the conflict and pressed Russia's neighbours in the region, above all Georgia and Turkey, to stop sheltering and supporting the rebels. The destruction of the Al-Qaeda network in Afghanistan has further reduced outside financing for the rebels, denied them access to training camps in Afghanistan and all but stopped the influx of foreign fighters to Chechnya.

International isolation and the label of terrorists have dealt a painful blow to Chechen leaders and deepened tensions that have always existed between the moderate separatist President, Mr. Aslan Maskhadov, and his two most radical and powerful warlords - Shamil Basayev and the Arab, Khattab, who have received the bulk of foreign funds. Moscow opened a ``dialogue'' with Mr. Maskhadov last month. Russian officials said the talks were confined to the terms of the rebels' surrender and their ``integration into peaceful life''. For his part, Mr. Maskhadov welcomed the talks but said they should be about peace, not surrender.

Apart from the obvious goal of widening the rift among the rebels and reassuring the West of its commitment to a political settlement in Chechnya, Moscow is trying to probe the extent of Mr. Maskhadov's control over the rebels and the scope of a possible deal with him over a post-war political arrangement. Moscow has set conditions for peace: ``terrorists'' must be brought to justice and Chechnya must remain in Russia.

Simultaneously, Russia has stepped up the hunt for the rebel leaders, taking advantage of the winter season, when most guerillas are forced to take shelter in villages in the plains. Mr. Ivanov has vowed to smash the rebel resistance finally before next spring. However, the Kremlin is aware that it cannot achieve a military victory without winning the battle for the minds of Chechnya's civilian population, whose support has enabled the rebels to carry on the guerilla war despite the overwhelming Russian military presence in the region.

Moscow has recently become more concerned with this problem. Prosecutors have opened hundreds of cases against Russian troops accused of looting and manhandling the local people. The Federal Government has poured funds into Chechnya to create jobs and rebuild the war-ravaged economy. Chechnya's Moscow-appointed Prime Minister, Mr. Stanislav Ilyasov, reported earlier this month that most of the 400 km of railroads in Chechnya had been restored. Of a total of 467 towns and villages, almost 200 now have electricity and 120 have gas for heating and cooking.

Almost 200,000 Chechen children go to schools and farmers harvested 220,000 tonnes of grain this year and sowed some 155,000 hectares with winter wheat - more than the republic has planted since the unrest began a decade ago.

In an even more promising development, Chechen businessmen, who have been operating elsewhere in Russia, have begun returning to Chechnya, even if with some prodding from the Russian authorities.

Mr. Usman Masayev, who runs a Moscow-based investment firm, was recently elected chair of the newly-established Union of Chechen Industrialists and Entrepreneurs. He has set up a pool of 15 Chechen businessmen from various Russian regions, who invested $10 million to restore several factories in Chechnya, including a sugar factory and a bread factory in Argun. There are plans to repair some dairy and meat-processing plants. ``We can't sit and wait. We have to restore our economy,'' Mr. Masayev said recently.

Russian leaders admit it will take years to pacify Chechnya, which has a long history of resisting Russian domination in the 19th and 20th centuries. But at least they seem to have learnt the lesson that in the Caucasus the stick only works if used together with the carrot.