Chechnya puts own siege on Yeltsin Is assault aimed at saving hostages or the president?

January 16, 1996|By Clara Germani | Clara Germani,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW -- As Russians watched television coverage of government helicopter gunships mercilessly pounding a tiny southern village with rockets all day yesterday, suspicions grew about whether the assault was calculated to save hostages held by Chechen rebels, or to save beleaguered President Boris N. Yeltsin's reputation.

And if the long and messy Chechen war has offered any lessons, yesterday's government assault on the Chechen rebels certainly will not be the end of the separatist movement.

The conflict with the southern breakaway republic of Chechnya has flared and sputtered off and on for over a year, embarrassing Mr. Yeltsin's government with its failure to either peacefully negotiate an end to the problem or militarily snuff it out.

The Chechen problem seems even more critical to Russia now with rebel activity spilling over into other regions -- this being the second Chechen rebel hostage crisis outside the breakaway republic in a year -- and with a presidential election campaign just heating up.

The past week has been symbolic of the protracted Chechen problem that began last Tuesday when warlord Salman Raduyev and a 200-man army of rebels took 2,000 hostages for a day in the Dagestani town of Kizlyar and demanded Russian troops get out of Chechnya.

Now it is playing itself out with fewer hostages in Pervomayskaya just a few miles from the border with the gunmen's homeland.

"The aim seems not to free hostages but to punish this militant group it doesn't seem possible in such an operation to save hostages," said Alexander Iskandarian, co-director of the Center for Caucasian Studies.

Mr. Iskandarian and other analysts suggested that Mr. Yeltsin, -- who has recovered from two heart attacks in the past six months, needs to portray himself as tough and in control as next June's presidential election approaches. Four of the president's main rivals have raised the handling of Chechnya as a campaign issue.

"There's an election in five months, and the main problem of of the race will be the Chechnyan war," said Ruslan Aushev, the president of Ingushetia, a neighboring Russian republic to Chechnya. Mr. Aushev said he believes the election pressures on Mr. Yeltsin, who is expected to declare his candidacy for a second term, have caused him to make hawkish moves such as yesterday's storming of Pervomayskaya instead of pursuing peaceful settlements with the Chechens.

Mr. Aushev said he worries that the warlike stance of the Kremlin will encourage extremist separatist movements in Russia's many ethnic republics. He said an important gauge of the damage the Kremlin has done in yesterday's raid will be the response of the Dagestan, the republic in which Pervomayskaya is located.

Mr. Aushev is, by virtue of his presidency of a Russian republic, also a member of the upper house of parliament. He and his parliamentary colleagues from the region yesterday said they were convinced that it would be impossible to stop Chechen terrorism through military strikes. Just as with the Palestinian and Northern Ireland terrorism problems, they said, peaceful negotiation might take longer but would be more effective in the long run.

"If these [rebels] are killed in Pervomayskaya, probably the next terrorist act won't be taking hostages but a bomb in the Moscow metro," said Mr. Iskandarian.

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