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Friday, November 12, 1999 Published at 16:33 GMT

World: Europe

Analysis: Power struggle behind Chechen war

The war in Chechnya is closely linked to domestic power struggles

By Moscow correspondent Andrew Harding

The newspapers in Moscow are full of wild rumours at the moment.

There is talk of an army revolt, mass sackings, a government reshuffle, a state of emergency - and even civil war.

Most of it is probably nonsense, but the speculation itself reflects one undeniable truth - that the war in Chechnya has as much to do with Russia's ongoing power struggles as it does with destroying militants in the south of the country.

Battle for the Caucasus

The key figure is Vladimir Putin, Russia's Prime Minister. This is his war.

If he wins it, or at least doesn't start losing it for another six months or so, he could very well triumph in next year's presidential elections.

His popularity rating has soared since the military campaign began.

Some commentators have even suggested the war was started deliberately in order to strengthen his position.

Mr Putin is President Yeltsin's chosen successor, at least for the moment.

'Exit strategy'

But the Kremlin is extremely nervous. It is worried that, if the war starts becoming unpopular, so will Mr Putin.

Then the Kremlin will have to find a new presidential candidate and time is running out.

That is why this week some of Mr Yeltsin's aides have begun changing tack, hinting that perhaps there is a way to end the war early, without achieving total victory.

The ground, it seems, is being laid for some sort of exit strategy. But the politicians aren't the only ones plotting and scheming.

Russia's generals are also demanding their say.

The military lost the last war in Chechnya and they have never forgotten it.

'Feuding elites'

Senior generals are now demanding a free hand from the Kremlin to crush the militants, whatever the price in civilian lives.

Some have threatened to resign. One even warned of civil war if the campaign was called off.

Much of this is probably hot air, but the fact that it is being said at all is proof that the Kremlin's authority is weaker than ever.

Prime Minister Putin has sided with the generals, but in modern Russia prime ministers come and go.

As the Chechen war continues, Russia's feuding elites appear to be busy working out who to blame if things start going badly wrong.

The real focus - as always - is on the post-Yeltsin era and the battle for succession.

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