Russia Claims Hollow Victory Against Chechen Rebels as Yeltsin Tilts Right
HUDDLED against the cold in her threadbare overcoat, Khadijat Ivzudinova pulled her shawl closer over her head and spoke of her native village. ''I don't want to live there anymore,'' she said, her voice deadened by shock and exhaustion. ''It is too full of blood.''
Mrs. Ivzudinova, a young mother of three, fled Pervomaiskoye soon after Chechen gunmen arrived there 10 days ago with the hostages they had seized after attacking a Russian airbase in Kizlyar. Since then, a massive Russian assault on the rebels, using multiple rocket launchers, helicopter gunships, and Howitzers has wreaked havoc on the village but has proved slow to subdue the Chechens.
''We have nothing now, we left with nothing but our keys,'' Mrs. Ivzudinova said, sitting in a rattletrap bus yesterday. ''So much of our life, all of it, is there. I didn't even bring the children's boots.''
Chechen independence fighters have lost support for their cowardly use of innocent women and children. And the Kremlin, humiliated by the Army's failure to end the hostage crisis quickly, has lost another layer of its reputation as a democratic government that cares for its citizens.
Earlier this week, Moscow decided to destroy the town after they determined no more hostages were alive but did not explain how they had reached that conclusion. President Boris Yeltsin said yesterday that 82 of the hostages had been rescued.
Yesterday Vaud Ghadjiyev, a man who said he had been held hostage by the Chechens claimed that the gunmen and some of their hostages had escaped the Russian encirclement Wednesday night. ''We were woken in our cellar trench by the Dudayev gunmen who said we would break through,'' he said. ''I don't know how many people died. But we broke through, and now they are on the countryside'' on the Chechen side of the border. His account could not be verified.
These horrific events in Pervomaiskoye can yield no winners. Rather, they have revealed key weaknesses in both the Chechen and Russian sides that could condemn them to continued and possibly endless fighting.
Too bitterly armed now, after more than a year of war, to take on the Russian military in direct combat, Chechen independence fighters can only launch guerrilla strikes such as the attack on the Kizlyar air base, or straightforwardly terrorist operations.
SUCH actions seem almost impossible for Moscow to control: Some, such as the seizure of a Russian cruise boat this week by sympathizers with the Chechen cause, because they happen outside Russian borders. Others, like the kidnapping of some 40 Russian power workers from the Chechen capital of Grozny Tuesday, because soldiers appear incapable of providing security. Others are unpredictable, as the lone Muslim gunman's seizure of a bus in the Siberian town of Surgut Wednesday.
The raid on Kizlyar and its grisly aftermath have shown yet again that the Chechen crisis will not go away until it is resolved. Hard liners around President Yeltsin have argued for months that only way to resolve it is to eliminate the rebel forces in a major military offensive that would stifle the revolt.
But the crass use of force in Pervomaiskoye, which has failed to silence 200 guerrillas trapped in a village of only 300 houses, has given the lie to their claims, indicating that the Russian Army cannot crush the rebels militarily.
But if the hard liners have no answers, nor is there any sign that advocates of a negotiated solution will prevail in Kremlin councils. This week's resignation of Sergei Filatov, President Yeltsin's liberal chief of staff, and his replacement by Nikolai Yegorov, the man who helped plan the Chechnya war in the first place, gives little ground for hope on that score.
Yeltsin has even less motive for taking a softer stance against the Chechens after the Dec. 17 parliamentary elections, in which Communists and nationalists won first and second place.
Over the past week he is moving democratic reformers out of key posts and building a team more concerned with restoring a stronger Russian state.
He is also, some observers believe, using the battle with Chechen hostage-takers in Dagestan as a chance to show a strong hand. ''He is signaling to his rivals, 'Get out of my way,' '' says Lilia Shevtsova of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Moscow.
The most important change was the resignation Tuesday of First Deputy Prime Minister Anatoly Chubais. He was the architect of the largest privatization project in history. Russian enterprise is now about 70 percent private. He was also the leader of the administration's successful fight against hyper-inflation.
But Mr. Chubais still holds another post - chairman of the Russian Securities and Exchange Commission. His work establishing a Russian mutual fund market and stock exchange is considered far more critical in the Russian business community.