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What Divides Russians, Chechens

Outbreak of war is manifestation of a centuries-old history of conquest and rebellion

RUSSIA and Chechnya both blinked this weekend in their face-off over who will rule the rebel region. Yet the last-minute hesitation against starting an all-out war may not be enough.

Russian jets have taken up bombing once again at targets throughout the breakaway republic, which declared its independence from Moscow in 1991. But they have refrained from bombing the capital, Grozny.

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Midnight Saturday marked the latest deadline given by Russian President Boris Yeltsin for Chechen independence fighters to give up their arms or face a missile attack on the capital.

Just minutes before the deadline expired, Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev said he was ready for talks. Russia said at the time that the offer was too late, and bombed bridges and an airfield near Grozny yesterday morning. But since then, Mr. Dudayev has indicated a willingness to drop an earlier demand that he meet only with Russian President Boris Yeltsin or Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. And the fact that Russian planes have not yet bombed the capital leaves a crack in the door for talks.

Russians and Chechens have only shaky foundations on which to build peace, however: The two have been rivals for centuries. A Caucasian mountain people with a history of defiant independence and freewheeling banditry, the Muslim Chechens see themselves as a fiercely loyal nation with a complex clan culture based on unbreakable family ties.

But Russia, which has tried to dominate Chechens for decades with limited success and to keep the fertile, oil-rich region under its thumb, says Chechens have become the new mafiosi of post-Soviet Eurasia.

When the Chechens broke free of Mother Russia three years ago, many Russians say, so did their true nature break free of its Soviet-imposed constrictions. Since then, the tiny nation of 1.2 million has shown its true colors, they maintain, becoming little more than a seedy collection of fur-hatted gangsters and armed hijackers who stop at nothing to bleed their enormous neighbor.

''Other movements in Iran and Afghanistan don't even consider the Chechens to be one of them, because they commit such horrible crimes'' said a Russian woman who gave her name only as Valentina.

Chechens, for their part, are remarkably good humored toward the Russians, and rarely take offense at Russian stereotypes about them.

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''I have nothing against the Russians, but a man has to defend his homeland,'' said successful restaurateur Ruslan Dagayev as he prepared to go to war under the proud eyes of his family.

Cardboard boxes full of homemade Molotov cocktails filled one basement room of his eatery in Grozny, while upstairs in the main dining room he carefully slipped on a ''death warrior'' outfit over his suit and tie -- a thick jumpsuit of plain white fabric that could double as a shroud.

Mr. Dagayev insisted he is prepared to give up his livelihood for the sake of the struggle. ''A man isn't a man unless he is ready to fight,'' he said.

''I loved the Russians, but they are attacking us, and we have to fight back'' he said, before playing a few farewell tunes on an upright piano where several hand grenades lay neatly in a row.

Moscow has gone far in recent years to portray Mr. Dudayev as the mafia don of Russia's organized crime industry, depicting him as a surly criminal godfather in a trenchcoat and pork pie hat, rallying his people together in one armed free-for-all.

When speaking of the need to squash Dudayev, Moscow rarely mentions the major pipeline between the Caspian and Black Seas that Chechnya controls, but cites instead only the perceived threat his armed gangs pose to Russian security.

But as Dudayev requested last-minute peace talks as the Saturday deadline expired, support for the Chechens' popularly elected president has strengthened.

''Dudayev is our president. He is our father. Whatever he tells us to do, we will do,'' said a Chechen woman who fled from possible bombing attacks in the capital Grozny. Her father, husband, and even her elderly grandfather had stayed behind to fight against the possible Russian invasion.

Whatever their thoughts toward Dudayev, Chechens see little advantage in succumbing to Moscow's rule.

''When we were part of Russia we weren't even allowed to speak our own language, we were forced not to believe in God, to join the Communist Party, and to forget our roots,'' said Dasha Tolsuyeva, a Chechen native of Grozny.

She pulled out a photograph of her father, taken two years ago when he was 103 years old, a wizened old man with a long grey beard, posing for the camera as he cradled a Kalashnikov rifle.

''Russians gave us only the most difficult work,'' she said. ''They gave us only the dirty jobs that nobody else wanted.''

Following centuries of persecution, Chechens are more than willing to take up the battle cry they hope will lead them to independence -- a small voice among the myriad Caucasian peoples of this region ready to fight to the death.

''We have always lived together with the Russians, we have always been for Russia,'' said Boris Elembayev, a former Afghan war veteran and Chechen who won medals for bravery. ''I gave two years of my life for Russia, but for what?''

Chechen and Ingush autonomous regions, formed in 1922, were combined in 1934 into the Chechen-Ingush Autonomous Republic. In 1944 the Chechens, along with other ethnic minorities, were deported en masse to Kazhakstan by Stalin, who accused them of collaborating with the Nazis. At least 200,000 of them died on the way. The Chechens were allowed to return home in 1956, but they never forgot how the Soviets treated them.

These days, it is the double-edged honor code of the Chechens, based on loyalties and vendettas, that distinguishes them from their more Westernized Slavic neighbors -- and makes them ready martyrs.

''If a man doesn't fight he is considered a coward'' explains Chechen Maryam Ibragimova. ''Nobody will respect him, he'll be disgraced his entire life.''

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