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Separation anxiety in Chechnya

Chechnya | Terrorism takes center stage in Russia's unending five-year civil war with Chechen separatists

Issue: "2004 Election: Dubyafest," Sept. 11, 2004

In Chechnya elections, what Moscow wants, Moscow gets. And then some. Moscow pressed for its way in the breakaway republic's presidential poll on Aug. 29 but is reaping a wave of terrorism elsewhere. The Kremlin-backed candidate, Alu Alkhanov, won with 74 percent of the vote. Journalists reported virtually empty polling stations, despite an official claim of 85 percent voter turnout.

Eyewitnesses also reported seeing stuffed ballot boxes and Chechens voting multiple times. International observers and the United States called the election neither free nor fair. As Russian forces remain locked in an unending five-year civil war with Chechen separatists, President Vladimir Putin wants Chechnya off his citizens' minds. But the less inclined he is to negotiate with legitimate Chechen rebels, analysts say, the more he lays Russia open to Chechen terrorists.

Within days of the election, terrorists struck multiple targets with a foreign group calling itself the Islambouli Brigades taking responsibility for two plane crashes and a subway bombing on an Arabic website. "This shows that there is a link between terrorist activities in Chechnya and outside the region," Mr. Putin said of the downed planes. "There are indications of a link to al-Qaeda."

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Maybe, but not very likely, says Russia expert Larry Uzzell. Tying al-Qaeda operatives to Chechen extremists has become smart politics for Mr. Putin since 9/11, allowing him to paint all Chechen separatists with the same terrorist brush. The result: The United States views Russia as a player in the war on terror, and Mr. Putin doesn't have to negotiate with Chechens who want political independence.

Media reports abounded during the Afghanistan war of Chechen warriors fighting alongside al-Qaeda and Taliban forces. But "we have yet to see a single, clearly identifiable Chechen placed before the cameras," Mr. Uzzell said, even among eight Russian Guantanamo Bay detainees. A strong link is unlikely too because majority Muslim Chechnya is also mostly moderate and pro-Western. "Even if every Chechen terrorist were eliminated, there would still be a Chechen secessionist movement," Mr. Uzzell said.

Conditions in Chechnya, meanwhile, remain miserable. A million live in the northern Caucasus republic and three-quarters are unemployed. Tens of thousands of Chechen refugees have fled to neighboring Ingushetia. About 80,000 Russian troops occupy the region. Many Chechens distrust them, along with the pro-Moscow security forces, who are accused of kidnappings and other forced detentions, torture, and summary executions.

In response, says Mr. Uzzell, some Chechens are becoming increasingly desperate: Employing suicide bombers and female terrorists-known as "black widows" because their husbands were killed in the Chechen war-is a relatively new tactic.

Should sporadic acts of terror give way to renewed fighting, the losers will be Chechen moderates like Ilyan Akhmadov. He decries suicide bombing and has advocated a peaceful political settlement to the Chechnya crisis. Mr. Akhmadov was foreign minister in a separatist government elected in 1996, following the last decade's first Chechen war. He and other government members went into hiding when the Russians invaded again in 1999, and the United States granted asylum to Mr. Akhmadov last spring.

If more Chechens embrace terror, voices like Mr. Akhmadov's will sound less compelling. "As time goes by, it's going to get harder for people like him," says Mr. Uzzell.


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