In Chechnya, a ray of hope


Struggle: A former Chechen rebel seeks election to Russia's parliament and, against tall odds, hopes to bring peace to his homeland.

December 05, 2003|By Douglas M. Birch | Douglas M. Birch,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

GROZNY, Chechnya - Just a few months ago, he was part of the Chechen rebel leadership, a peace envoy living in Moscow and trying to start negotiations with the Kremlin.

Now, he's one of 4,500 candidates campaigning for the 450 seats in Russia's parliament in Sunday's election. He's trying for the single seat from Chechnya, and he's hoping to stay alive in the process.

Neither is easy to do in this melancholy republic. But Salambek S. Maigov says he is determined to move the stalemated struggle for independence out of Chechnya's sodden ditches and snowy ravines and into the Duma building across from Moscow's Red Square.

The 37-year-old businessman's abrupt change of direction is a hopeful sign in this tiny Russian republic, where the current struggle for independence is in its fifth bloody year.

At the same time, his campaign demonstrates how maddeningly difficult politics can be in a place where pro-Moscow forces are engaged in a war without rules against partisans, warlords and a small group of Islamic radicals.

Even if voters find Maigov's message persuasive, even if he avoids being killed or kidnapped while delivering it, he can't be sure the election won't be rigged. With the election approaching, he has little time for reflection.

"In an election, there is no question of fair and not fair," he said. "There is only winning and not winning."

The Kremlin long ago claimed that the war was over. But Russian planes and helicopters still bomb villages, residents say. Russian convoys are still ambushed. And Chechen men are dragged from their homes by masked men in Russian uniforms.

The war, which has killed at least 5,000 Russian soldiers and tens of thousands of Chechens, continues to kill more than a dozen people a week. But Maigov believes the time is ripe for a negotiated peace.

"This conflict has everything it needs to be solved," he said. "Chechnya can surely find a compromise, a way to co-exist with Russia."

The separatist president, Aslan Maskhadov, appointed Maigov in February as his peace envoy to the Kremlin. But Moscow showed no interest in talks, Maigov said, and Maskhadov could not seem to define his terms. So, Maigov quit.

Now he is running for parliament on a platform calling for Chechnya to remain part of Russia in exchange for broad autonomy and self-government. He is one of eight candidates for Chechnya's seat in the Duma.

"We don't give up the idea of independence or sovereignty," Maigov said. But if Chechnya can mostly govern itself, the separatists might agree to postpone full independence.

Some analysts say the search for peace must accelerate, because the balance of power among separatist forces is changing in ominous ways. The traditional Chechen separatists appear to be weakening, as disillusioned and poorly paid rebels quit. Lured by a steady income and the promise of amnesty, some are joining the private army of Chechnya's pro-Moscow president, Akhmad Kadyrov.

Others are joining the ranks of the Islamic fundamentalists, who are bankrolled by foreign Muslim groups. The militants also are reportedly gaining fresh recruits from the angry, idle young men of villages.

"The reason they follow them is they have no jobs, no income," said Said-Akhmad Arsakhanov, 62, of the village of Alkhan Yurt, just south of Grozny.

The Kremlin's apparent aim is to turn the conflict into a war among Chechens. And that strategy appears to be working. But the price is the polarization of Chechen society between pro-Moscow and pro-fundamentalist groups. And in the long run, that may only prolong Chechnya's - and Russia's - agony.

For many Chechens who practice a moderate form of Islam, the fundamentalists represent as much of a threat as the Russians.

"They advocate a mythic jihad without determining a final goal," Maigov said. "They could result in the annihilation of our nation."

By running for office, Maigov hopes to pressure the separatists and the Kremlin into peace talks. But he cannot do that, he says, unless the elections are honest.

"The most important question is whether Kadyrov will allow people to make their own choice or whether they will rig the election to get someone obedient in the Duma," Maigov said.

Leonid Radzikhovsky, a Moscow political scientist, says President Vladimir V. Putin installed Kadyrov as Chechnya's president to turn Russia's war in Chechnya into a war among Chechens. With the Kremlin's money, Kadyrov has recruited a security force of 12,000 fighters.

Radzikhovsky doubts that Kadyrov could stage a free election even if he wanted to, because of the brutal nature of Chechen politics.

"He has no idea of such notions as law and civil society," Radzikhovsky said. "It's not in his character to share power with anybody. And if he does, he will be shot straightaway."

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