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Inch by Inch, Russia Loses Its Grip on Chechnya

An ambiguous peace lets region appoint a Cabinet this week. Moscow wants to arrest new prime minister.

A splintered wooden door on a Moscow side street symbolizes the deadlock over the breakaway Muslim republic of Chechnya, separating the Chechens' insistence on independence and Russia's inability to let go.

The outside of the door to the Chechen government mission shows the official Russian version of its defiant subject. The metal plaque announcing the delegation's presence hangs next to those of more subservient republics, making clear that it is Moscow that pays the offices' rent.

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But step inside, and posters on the walls hail an unrecognized state. The chief delegate, Vakha Khasanov, talks vehemently about virtual independence and even the possibility of renewed war to get it.

"There is a stalemate here. De facto we are an independent state and ignore directions from the center," Mr. Khasanov says. "We hope that we can transform our de facto into de juris independence. But Russia does not seem to want to listen."

Chechnya, in the rugged Caucasus Mountains, is Russia's Northern Ireland and its West Bank, an ethnically different area that for 150 years has been defying central rule.

Its 1 million people run their own affairs. But they still take handouts from Moscow, which deems the district just one of its 21 republics. The regions enjoy a high degree of autonomy, including the right to elect their own presidents and draw up constitutions.

A treaty signed in August 1996 ended the 21-month separatist war in Chechnya. The conflict saw Russian troops humiliated as Chechens suffered 60,000 deaths and were bombed to economic ruin.

The peace deal stipulates that Chechnya's political status is to be resolved before Dec. 31, 2000. Russia interprets that as meaning no decision will come until the deadline, but the Chechen government wants to settle things before then.

"Relations between the Chechen and Russian governments are worsening," says Denis Dragunski, a magazine columnist and an expert on Chechnya. "And I see them deteriorating further in the months to come."

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Although Chechnya accounts for only 0.7 percent of Russia's total territory, the area is strategic, since Russia depends on a 95-mile stretch of oil pipeline that runs through the region.

Lawlessness, banditry, and the kidnapping of foreigners have severely limited international aid and makes it a nightmare to govern.

But Russia does not want to see a strong Islamic state in the northern Caucasus, nor a precedent for other independence-minded republics. The breakup of the Soviet Union is a sore point for many nationalist Russians who do not want any further loss of territory.

The latest crisis began with the announcement earlier this month by Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov that he had appointed war hero Shamil Basayev prime minister, and asked him to form a new government. Mr. Basayev is popular locally - but is wanted in Moscow for leading the June 1995 hostage-taking in the Russian town of Budyonnovsk, in which more than 100 people died.

Blaming Chechens for recent raids on Russians and wanting to show who was responsible, Russia's hawkish Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov began the year by positioning troops along the border and threatening "preventive" strikes on Chechen guerrilla bases. Chechnya responded by putting its fighters on alert.

But beyond these gestures, some analysts believe a conflict will be avoided. They say that Russia is reluctant to restart the war that lost it much prestige at home and abroad. They note that the most of the units Kulikov stationed at the border lack the missiles and manpower needed to carry out the threatened preemptive strikes.

"Russia should speak gently but carry a big stick," paraphrases Sergei Kazenov, an expert on Chechnya at the Institute for National Security and Strategic Research, an independent Russian think tank.

"But," Mr. Kazenov notes, "It doesn't have a big stick right now."

Some analysts believe that although Basayev's ascendancy proves the eroded authority of the more moderate Mr. Maskhadov, the chances for stability in the anarchic territory are now greater. Basayev, unlike Maskhadov, has more sway over maverick field commanders who hold the true power in Chechnya.

Basayev is not adverse to dialogue, but is no doubt confused by the lack of policy coherence in Moscow.

In addition to Kulikov's bombing threat, the past three weeks saw Russia's chief prosecutor calling for Basayev's arrest. Then last week, Russia's chief negotiator flew to the Chechen capital Grozny for talks with Basayev.

On Jan. 19, Russian President Boris Yeltsin said he generally supported the interior minister's tough stance on Chechnya, although he said Kulikov's statements "should have been corrected slightly."

It was Mr. Yeltsin's first public statement on Chechnya since returning to work after several weeks of vacation and sick leave.

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