- The Washington Times - Friday, March 3, 2000

Acting Russian President Vladimir Putin faces a mounting political and administrative headache in Chechnya, as his troops move against the last large-scale pockets of resistance in the breakaway republic.
Mr. Putin and his aides Thursday firmly rejected talks with rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov, elected president of the independent Chechen government established after the 1994-96 war with Russia, saying that Mr. Maskhadov and other rebel leaders first must face criminal charges for their role in the war.
"Maskhadov must first appear before the general prosecutor for questioning," Mr. Putin told reporters in Moscow Thursday.
He said Chechen rebel leaders must answer charges related to numerous kidnappings of foreigners that have plagued the region in recent years.
But analysts said the long history of Chechen resistance to rule by Moscow suggested that the hard-line stance of Mr. Putin and his generals would not subdue the rebels or crush the push for independence.
"The Russian conflict in Chechnya has been going on for 200 years and flares up again in almost every generation," said Ariel Cohen, an expert on Russia at the Heritage Foundation. "It's naive in the extreme to believe the fighting is now forever at an end."
He said the most recent fighting will be particularly hard for Mr. Putin to contain because the Chechen cause has become internationalized for the first time by attracting sympathy from militant Islamic groups outside the region.
"The war, in the direct sense, may be over soon, but armed resistance will carry on for a long time," said Alexei Malashenko, a Caucasus expert with the Carnegie Endowment's Moscow research center. "In the situation of a totally ruined territory and extremely high social tension, [renewed fighting] is possible."
Russian television reported Thursday that Chechen attackers killed 12 security policemen and injured 31 near the Chechen capital, Grozny, in the kind of hit-and-run ambush that bedeviled Russian forces during their disastrous 1994-96 incursion into Chechnya.
Despite overrunning Grozny last month and the strategic southern town of Shatoi on Monday, Russian forces were not able to capture Mr. Maskhadov or other top Chechen fighters, including the guerrilla commanders Shamil Basayev and Khattab.
Having escaped the siege of Grozny, the major Chechen leaders have split up and are leading smaller forces.
Mr. Maskhadov, whose pleas for a negotiated settlement to the fighting have been brushed off by Moscow, said in an interview broadcast on Radio Liberty Thursday that the "fighting will go on for a long time to come."
"Out of 25,000 volunteers who took up arms, 23,000 remain," the Chechen president said. Russian generals estimate that fewer than one-tenth that many rebels remain in the field, holed up in the republic's southern hill country, which has been the traditional staging ground for Chechen resistance movements.
Russian Gen. Vadim Timchenko Thursday dismissed the prospect of a protracted guerrilla war in Chechnya.
"In order to conduct a partisan war, you need one condition: the support of the local population," Gen. Timchenko, deputy commander of Russia's forces in the North Caucasus, told reporters at a Russian military base near Grozny.
He said that more than half the Chechen population supports the federal forces. "If the army stays here until the situation becomes fully stable, then this percentage will grow and the basis for partisan activity will disappear," the general said.
The Russian government has already turned its attention to the postwar situation, announcing on Wednesday that it will shift control of the Chechen operation from the Defense Ministry to police forces under the direction of the Interior Ministry.
Sergei Yastrzhembsky, Mr. Putin's spokesman on the war, said on Wednesday that Chechnya will have far less autonomy than what Mr. Maskhadov's government achieved in the cease-fire accord after the 1996 war.
"Chechnya will have no special status," Mr. Yastrzhembsky said. "It will have the same status as other Russian republics," with what the spokesman called "a sufficient degree of autonomy."
But analysts say Mr. Putin will be hard-pressed to find the money needed to rebuild Chechnya's shattered economy or to find credible Chechen partners willing to work with his government. Pro-Moscow Chechens, many living in Moscow and other Russian cities, are not seen as legitimate Chechen leaders by Russia's Western critics.
Economic hardship and the Chechens' long history of rebellion pose major challenges for Mr. Putin, analysts Graham Fuller of the RAND Corp. and Lehigh University's Rajan Menon wrote in the most recent issue of the journal Foreign Affairs.
"In the North Caucasian mosaic, Moscow may temporarily keep rival groups off balance," they wrote. "But it is only a matter of time before people realize that Russia seeks control but shirks responsibility for fundamental problems."

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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