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Troubled Russia Hears Rumbles From Its South

Moscow again must cope with Chechnya, a key to stability in an oil-rich region

Russia has enough on its hands with a financial crisis that has brought President Boris Yeltsin back to Moscow earlier than expected from his vacation.

Now, at this inconvenient time, violence has flared again in combustible Chechnya.

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Moscow was severely reminded of the unresolved turmoil in its breakaway Caucasus state - and the possibility of anarchy spreading into the rest of the volatile, oil-rich region - with an attempt on the life of Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov last week.

Russian President Boris Yeltsin sprang into action, declaring support for the moderate Mr. Maskhadov, who is trying to avert fighting by Islamic extremists and maverick field commanders. Mr. Yeltsin said he would send Prime Minister Sergei Kiriyenko to meet with Maskhadov in what would be the highest-level talks in a year.

To show just how serious it was, Russia also began war games this week near Chechnya.

The republic has been devastated following a 21-month war with Russia. Poverty is creating lawlessness, which in turn fuels banditry, kidnapping, and drug and gun smuggling.

"If the situation goes from bad to worse, regional stability may be destroyed," says Sergei Kazenov, an expert on Chechnya at the Institute for National Security and Strategic Studies, an independent think tank in Moscow.

Chechnya, a rugged mountainous area, is Russia's Northern Ireland. The ethnically different population has been struggling on and off for 150 years to break free from Moscow. Secessionist feelings reached a head during the war, which ended in August 1996 when humiliated Russia troops withdrew leaving 60,000 dead and Chechnya bombed to ruins.

The two sides have since been deadlocked over Chechnya's demands for full independence and Russia's insistence that it belongs to the federation as a semiautonomous state. The dispute is to be resolved by January 2001. In the meantime, Russia has failed to pay out tens of millions of dollars promised for reconstruction.

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"There is an obvious softening of attitudes in Moscow ... [toward Chechnya]. This is a considerable step toward achieving stability," says Sergei Arutyunov, head of the Caucasian department at the Institute of Ethnology in Moscow. "The situation is changing now because extremist forces in the Caucasus are growing and consolidating their positions. In light of this, Kremlin bureaucrats are beginning to understand that Maskhadov's government is a lesser of two evils."

Mr. Arutyunov points to comments by Kiriyenko, who conceded Tuesday that Moscow has not paid the compensation it promised.

It is fairly certain Maskhadov will ask again for the financial assistance. But it is unclear whether Moscow, battling to keep in check spending to impress the International Monetary Fund, which has promised Russia billions of dollars in aid, will release funds to Chechnya. "Chechnya needs the money badly. But I don't think Moscow can pay a significant figure because of its own financial crisis," says Alan Kasayev, a columnist at the Nezavisimaya Gazeta newspaper in Moscow.

Although the Chechen government has expressed alarm over Russia's war maneuvers, analysts do not expect Russia to return to war. Officials said the exercise was aimed at improving security coordination in the Caucasus.

Stability in the area - and not just around the 95-mile stretch of oil pipeline in Chechnya that is important to Russia - is of prime concern to Moscow. Oil from the Caspian Sea is a vital export, and Western oil giants are investing billions of dollars in the region.

The last thing they and Russia want to see is a Somalia-like political chaos seeping from Chechnya to nearby Russian republics and other countries that have their own problems.

Dagestan, another of Russia's 21 semiautonomous republics with an important pipeline, is descending into chaotic violence. Azerbaijan has still to fully resolve the question of the Nagorno-Karabakh region with Armenia. And Georgia is contending with a separatist struggle in Abhazia.

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