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Friday, October 22, 1999 Published at 12:14 GMT

World: Europe

Analysis: Chechen conflict - round two?

Russian troops leaving Grozny in 1996: Will history repeat itself?

By regional analyst Tom de Waal

The situation in Chechnya is reminiscent of the winter of 1994 - Russia bombing the Chechen capital Grozny and advancing troops into the republic.

Battle for the Caucasus
Last time, it led to a protracted and unpopular war which left thousands dead and reduced Chechen towns and villages to rubble. This time, though - at least so far - there are differences.

Public opinion in Russia is extremely hostile to the Chechens following the spate of bomb explosions in Moscow.

Even though no official proof has been presented of a Chechen connection with the bombings, Chechens have been responsible for a wave of kidnappings in the North Caucasus and recent fighting in Dagestan. This has helped confirm a popular prejudice that Chechens are bandits.

Russian newspapers have been reporting that leading members of the Russian military are eager to reverse Russia's humiliating defeat in Chechnya in 1996.

Russian forces have advanced to within a few kilometres of the capital Grozny.

Moscow policy shift

In the early stages of the offensive, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has said that Russia's aim was to destroy the bases of Islamist militants "from a distance" and use "special forces" only at a later stage.

[ image: Russia's last campaign left Grozny's centre in ruins]
Russia's last campaign left Grozny's centre in ruins
Yet Russia's goals appear to be widening: what began as a conflict against "terrorists" now more resembles a new attempt to crush Chechnya's self-declared independence.

In a shift of policy Mr Putin declared that a long-forgotten parliament in exile in Moscow and elected in 1996 when Grozny was under Russian military occupation has more legitimacy than President Maskhadov, whom Moscow recognised as Chechnya's leader in 1997.

The BBC's Stephen Dalziel: "The Russian generals could stumble back into another Chechen war"
The early stages of this campaign showed little evidence that the Russians were hitting their main targets.

The situation could therefore escalate as it did in 1994 when bombers were used and, when they failed to dislodge the Chechen fighters, President Yeltsin sent in massed infantry.

This time around, though, events may not be following the same pattern.

Public opinion

In the first place the war in Chechnya between 1994 and 1996 was a matter of public debate and was the Russians' first television war.

The reports from correspondents on the ground like Yelena Masyuk from NTV contradicted the statements from the Russian military that there were "precision strikes" on Grozny, showing the bodies of civilians and the wreckage of buildings.

[ image: Some Russian generals are said to want all-out war]
Some Russian generals are said to want all-out war
Those images inspired the sympathy of many viewers and made it an unpopular war from the very start.

But this time, information from Chechnya is very sparse as there are very few Russian or foreign correspondents there because of a fear of kidnapping.

Almost all communications have been cut with Chechnya, which makes Chechnya much more isolated than ever before. The Russian leadership also believes that public opinion is now behind them.

When the mayor of Moscow blamed "Chechen bandits" for planting the bombs that killed hundreds of Muscovites he was evidently echoing the views of many ordinary Russians - even though the Chechens deny any involvement in the blasts.

The 1994 invasion turned into disaster and eventually defeat. The deaths of civilians and the slaughter of inexperienced conscripts led to an upsurge of popular anger in Russia. There is no reason to believe that the Russian military is better equipped or funded now than it was last time.

This could be the main restraining factor on the decision-makers in the Kremlin.

They have one eye on elections, and know that although the population broadly supports an air campaign or a limited push into Chechnya with few casualties, it strongly opposes anything that would lead to the slaughter of hundreds of young conscripts, as happened in Grozny in 1994-5.

Belligerent mood

[ image:  ]
The last war was not entirely an ethnic one: Russian pensioners died in large numbers in Grozny and although there were many instances of the killing of civilians, they were not on the scale of the conflicts in the Balkans. Nor were there cases of any revenge attacks inside Russia by Chechens.

But the shift in public opinion means that if there is a new conflict in Chechnya it could well be more savage and more desperate than last time.

There is more scope for negotiations than last time. President Yeltsin flatly refused to meet the last Chechen president, Dzhokhar Dudayev. He has met President Maskhadov twice. Mr Maskhadov told foreign journalists in Grozny that if he could have a 30-minute meeting with Mr Yeltsin they could resolve everything.

However the Russian leadership has been in belligerent mood and has ruled out a meeting with the Chechen president.

They say he must give up the Chechen rebel commanders, like Shamil Basayev, whom they blame for the bomb explosions, for trial. So far this tactic appears to have achieved the opposite effect. Faced with new hostilities, Mr Maskhadov has appointed his political rival Mr Basayev "commander of the Eastern Front" in Chechnya.

The Russian threat is a powerful unifying factor - and, although it is still shattered from the last conflict, Chechnya does still have two things in abundance: guns and young men prepared to use them.

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