1.4. The Abduction of General Shpigun. Moscow - Grozny Relations
On March 5, the envoy plenipotentiary of the Russian Ministry of the Interior, Major General of the Militia Gennady Shpigun was abducted in the airport of the city of Grozny.
The Russian Interior Minister, Sergei Stepashin, made a strong statement following that act (Kommersant-Daily, March 09, 1999):
"Upon instructions given by the President of the Russian Federation, Boris Yeltsin, the Russian Ministry of the Interior declares after a thorough analysis of the recent developments in Chechnya that the Russia has run out of further tolerance to the growing surge of crime in the republic.
Despite continual statements by Chechen leaders that large-scale operations are being taken against the gangs terrorising the population of the republic and adjacent districts of other constituent members of the Russian Federation, nothing has changed. On the contrary, the situation is getting worse with every coming day.
Terrorist acts, attacks on the Russian military units, law-enforcement officers, hostage taking and other grave offences have become part of life in the North Caucasus. Obviously, this can't help but cause resentment and indignation with people who insist that the president and government of Russia take urgent measures to that effect.
Terrorist training centres are openly functioning on the territory of Chechnya, and people deemed criminals under Russian and international laws feel freely there. Essentially, several thousand armed scoundrels are dictating their will to the Chechen society driving it back to medieval obscurity.
The abduction of the plenipotentiary envoy of the Russian Interior Ministry, Major General of the Militia Gennady Shpigun, the safety of whom was guaranteed by the Chechen leaders, on March 5 at the airport of Grozny is yet another challenge of bandits thrown at the federal and local authorities.
Russia will not let the individuals committing this and other crimes get away with them, whenever they seek refuge.
We have sufficient capability of finding and punishing the culprits.
For the Chechen leaders, setting General Shpigun free is the last opportunity to prove their worth to Russia and the whole world.
If General Shpigun is not liberated in the nearest future, I, being the Minister of the Interior of the Russian Federation, within the terms of reference granted to me by the Russian Federation President, will raise an issue of taking the harshest actions to restore law, order and security in the North Caucasian region before the Security Council and Russian Federation Government.
Submissions have already been made as to the halt in the air and rail communications with the Chechen Republic, and road access regime has been restricted.
Provided there is no positive resolution of the situation, I believe it will be appropriate to impose restrictions on the supply of energy sources to the republic, which are currently supplied free of charge, to stop all financial operations and suspend ongoing economic and other programmes.
If any other terrorist acts and grave offences are committed from the Chechen territory, bases and areas of concentration of gangs will be destroyed in accordance with the international practice.
This is not a threat, but objective need to provide adequate reaction to the current developments.
These measures are not aimed against the Chechen people. We should be drawing a very distinct line between ordinary people yearning for peace and tranquillity on the one hand and thugs and terrorists going to the limit and seeking an armed take-over in the republic on the other.
All citizens wishing to leave Chechnya, irrespective of their ethnic identity, must have a chance of doing so and enjoy essential material assistance.
I am confident that we shall bridle terrorism. Peace and civic accord will be restored in the region".
Moscow took no further action following this statement.
On March 10, the situation around Chechnya after the abduction of General Shpigun was discussed at a special meeting held by Prime Minister Yevgeni Primakov. A decision not to use force against Chechnya was made.
After that meeting, Yevgeni Primakov told journalists, "We won't be moving towards an all-out war", but added that harsh actions will be taken. In particular, further restrictions would be made on the administrative border and flights would be severely controlled. (Nezavisimaya gazeta, March 12, 1999) Participants in the meeting spoke in favour of a conference of the North Caucasian leaders and Aslan Maskhadov. It appears that Moscow issued a warning that if no tangible stabilisation was achieved in the regions bordering on Chechnya, the state of emergency would be announced in all areas adjacent to Ichkeria.
The speaker of the State Duma, Gennady Seleznev, stated at that time that before a summit meeting could take place, Maskhadov must apply to the federal law enforcement authorities with a request for assistance in restoring law and order in his republic. The speaker confirmed that residents of Chechnya would be receiving their retirement pensions, but budgetary transfers will be suspended. The speaker of the upper chamber of the Russian parliament, Yegor Stroyev, said he couldn't exclude the possibility of economic pressure exerted against Chechnya, in particular, turning the power switch off.
The President of Ingushetia, Ruslan Aushev, immediately labelled the proposed measures as ineffective. Referring to Aslan Maskhadov, he told Interfax that an "economic blockade or missile strikes and bombings, or attempts to put some pressure on Grozny via the Chechen diaspora abroad will only undermine the vestiges of trust, which was won the hard way after signing the peace pact". Aushev thought it was essential to establish a working group to draft an agreement between the Russian Federation and Chechnya to encompass the entire range of political and economic issues.
As for the fate of Gen. Shpigun, no information came from Grozny apart from statements of the active search for the general.
On March 16, Sergei Stepashin met with the leaders of the North Caucasian republics at the Federation Council. After that meeting, Stepashin publicly announced that there would be "no war in Chechnya". Thus, the chief of the Interior Ministry finally disavowed his own statement that Russian authorities were ready to destroy guerrilla bases in Chechnya. At that time, Stepashin elaborated on the need "to establish a dialogue with Chechen law and order forces" and mentioned that Maskhadov law-enforcement agencies showed willingness to start active cooperation and information exchange.
As the paper Kommersant-Daily wrote on March 17, 1999, after a week and a half of consultations in connection with General Shpigun's kidnapping, Moscow curtailed the war campaign and was ready for further negotiations. Indeed, only a few days ago Moscow and Grozny were really close to a war. After Shpigun's kidnapping and exchange of ultimatum-like statements, Primakov and Maskhadov, according to Kommersant-Daily's information, had a telephone conversation. The Russian Premier reproved the Chechen President for not being able to set things in order even at Grozny Airport. Maskhadov in response advised Primakov "to set things in order in Moscow", and hang up. On Saturday, March 13, his press secretary announced that Maskhadov was not going to meet with Primakov and would talk only with Yeltsin. But anyway, Moscow and Grozny were ready to resume negotiations shortly.
Maskhadov's irritation during his telephone conversation with Primakov shows once again how vulnerable the Chechen President was by any hint to his inability to control the situation in the republic - a high-ranking official was kidnapped in the capital's airport. (By the way, according to the mass media, Gennady Shpigun came to Grozny for the 50th birth anniversary of Kazbek Makhashev, a man from "Mashkadov's team," and was to take the same flight with him on his way back. For some reasons Makhashev postponed his trip, and Shpigun was kidnapped from the lounge of the plane. So, it was not Primakov but someone in Grozny who clearly hinted Maskhadov who is the boss in Chechnya.)
And Maskhadov for the umpteenth time declared a war on crime, especially kidnapping. He started by reshuffling his "power structures". As St. Petersburg Vedomosti wrote on March 17, 1999, speaking at a nationwide rally in Grozny the day before, Maskhadov mentioned that personnel changes were coming among the leadership of the "power structures". He asked Chechens to support his crackdown on crime.
Small wonder that the rally was initiated by the coordinating council of the local administrative heads and leaders of public-political parties and movements, and the clergy. According to the organisers, up to 50,000 people participated. On the opposite side of the square, some 300 metres from the rostrum from which Maskhadov was speaking, the opposition organised its own meeting. It attracted no more than 100 participants.
Maskhadov's followers who spoke at the rally demanded that their President should take tough measures to combat crime and stabilise the socio-political situation in the republic.
President Maskhadov had to admit that crime had acquired a threatening scale in the republic because of the inability of law-enforcement authorities. He also condemned Saudi Arabia for financing oppositional forces and bandit groups acting in Chechnya. Specifying the external source of destabilisation in Chechnya, Maskhadov claimed that the new religious sect, which pursued the aim of splitting Chechen Moslems, was supported by Jews through Saudi Arabia. "They try to turn us into an obedient weapon of the West in the Caucasus similar to the Afghan Taliban. We are Nakshband and Kadari Sunnites, and there is no place for any other Islamic sect in Chechnya", he said. (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, March 26, 1999.)
The Chechen President named Shamil Basayev, Vakha Arsanov and Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev among those who fulfil the role of protective shield for dissenters. It following from Maskhadov's speech that "Basayev is just a puppet in the hands of the opposition which uses him as power support in pursuit of its unseemly aims" and said that ex-Vice President Arsanov "is motivated only by his personal ambitions". Maskhadov also said that "Isa Umarov and his brother" were the main executors of the Chechen opposition. (Umarov's brother is the notorious Movladi Udugov.) The private television company Kavkaz was called the nest of evil and provocations. Its instigative calls put the Chechen people on the brink of a civil war. (With the exception of Mufti Akhmad Kadyrov and the President, there are no people in the Chechen leadership who are against Udugov and the Kavkaz television company, which he has taken under his wing. Many members of the Cabinet shun from ideological attacks on their former comrades, writes Khamid Khatuyev, the author of the above-mentioned Nezavisimaya gazeta article.)
Maskhadov proposed creating mobile groups in each village to combat the illegal activities of Wahhabis and the chapters of the oppositional Shura. "Drive them away from our villages! Restore order! As soon as our domestically- manufactured enemies begin showing any signs of activity, Russia changes over to threatening shouts and orders. That is why I had to hang up in the middle of my latest telephone conversation with Primakov", Maskhadov said.
The Chechen President stressed that he "is capable of stopping those who vie for power by force", but he "does not want any new bloodshed". Radical changes have to be made in the republic's law-enforcement departments, he went on, because his repeated demands to start criminal proceedings against the proponents of a religion which is alien to Chechens were ignored by their leaders. "We cannot tolerate a situation when the enemies of Islam trample underfoot the century-old traditions of the Chechen people, desecrate the names of our saints, kidnap and kill people. In the past 400 years history has given us the chance to build our own free state. But people who have sold their souls for dollars are standing in our way. They lead us to a bloodshed", Maskhadov said.
Addressing the extraordinary session of the Cabinet of Ministers on March 18, 1999, President Maskhadov said that he takes the activities of all the law-enforcement bodies of the republic under his control.
He eliminated independent anti-crime departments and units, including the anti-kidnapping department, the anti-terrorist centre, the national security service and the special department in the Office of the President of the Chechen Republic. These and eight other structures were merged into the State Security Ministry headed by Turpal Atgeriyev.
Atgeriyev told RIA Novosti on March 19 that like any other state Chechnya would have only four law-enforcement bodies: the defence, interior, state security and justice ministries. The new State Security Ministry "will carry out preventive measures and the struggle against crime which threatens the state and its legitimately elected authorities".
On March 19, General Aidamar Abalayev, who was chief of staff of the national guards, was appointed Minister of the Interior. National Guards, the General Staff of the armed forces, and the customs-frontier service were subordinated to his ministry. It was presumed that the numerous regiments and battalions, which had been created by different ministries and departments, would also pass under Abalayev's control.
(Meanwhile, ITAR-TASS on March 19, 1999, quoted an unidentified member of the Chechen diaspora who had just returned from Chechnya as saying that General Gennady Shpigun was kept by gunmen of the warlord Arbi Barayev in the very heart of Chechnya - the town of Urus-Martan. According to the same source, Urus-Martan was completely controlled by Basayev and Barayev. A large number of oppositional insurgents, including quite a few Arabs, were concentrated there. Urus-Martan residents claimed that Shpigun was kept in one of the school buildings.)
At the same March 18 Cabinet session, Maskhadov dismissed leading officials of the republic's oil complex who "has failed to set things straight in the oil complex and put an end to oil stealing".
According to St. Petersburg Vedomosti (March 19, 1999), dramatic events preceded that Cabinet session. M. Charayev, commander of a special battalion of the Shari'ha State Security Ministry, which protected the Baku - Novorossiisk pipeline, was shot dead in the back the day before. According to Chechen law-enforcement authorities, Charayev, who was President Maskhadov's supporter, was killed for his anti-crime activities.
At the Cabinet session Maskhadov authorised Vice Premiers Kazbek Makhashev and Akhmed Zakayev and member of the presidential State Council Said-Khussein Abumuslimov to begin preparations for a meeting and negotiations with Russian Prime Minister Primakov. (So, the March 13 statement of Maskhadov's press secretary that the President will talk only with Yeltsin was disavowed.) Maskhadov did not exclude that the meeting could take place literally in a few days' time. The range of issues for discussion was not determined yet. However, the Chechen President stressed that he "intends to insist, above all, on the resumption of drafting a full-scale treaty providing, among other things, for the establishment of diplomatic relations between Chechnya and Russia". (St. Petersburg Vedomosti, March 19, 1999.)
There were plans (before the telephone conversation between Maskhadov and Primakov which stopped when Maskhadov suddenly hang up) for a meeting between the Russian Prime Minister and Chechen President in Vladikavkaz.
Maskhadov said on March 18 that such a meeting would take place but he did not name its venue.
The very next day a bomb was blown up in Vladikavkaz's central market place, killing 64 and wounding more than 100 people. Many observers called that terrorist act an attempt to thwart negotiations between Moscow and Grozny.
President of North Ossetia-Alania Aleksandr Dzasokhov said in an interview with Nezavisimaya Gazeta on March 20 that he was inclined to regard the incident as a barbarous crime designed to thwart serious measures, which were to take place in Vladikavkaz. At the same time, Dzasokhov was not inclined to blame any forces of his republic for the explosion. "We have never had either covert or overt opposition. The situation has been quiet in North Ossetia up to now", he said.
March 21 marked a logical projection of all these events - an abortive attempt on President Aslan Maskhadov was made in Grozny.
As Segodnya wrote on March 23, 1999, the terrorist act was performed following the typical scheme. The radio-controlled bomb made of two tank charges and a direct-action mine, went off as President Maskhadov's motorcade was speeding along Prospekt Pobedy. The Chechen leader remained intact; one passer-by was killed and eight wounded.
Grozny hurried to attribute it to the "plotting of special services" (other than Chechen ones, of course).
The Moscow News (03/23/99) wrote that a couple of hours after the attempt against his life, Aslan Maskhadov spoke on the Grozny TV. He said that the attempt had been staged by certain forces in Moscow seeking to destabilise the situation in the North Caucasus in order to introduce a state of emergency throughout Russia.
MN offered its own version. The names of those responsible for the much-talked-about kidnapping of General Shpigun are known in Chechnya. On Saturday March 20, the Chechen Prosecutor General's Office issued arrest warrants of six persons suspected of complicity in General Shpigun's kidnapping, Prosecutor General Salman Albakov said Saturday night on the local TV. He still refused to disclose the names of the persons whose arrest was sanctioned by his office. They must have hit the mark, because on the next day the bomb went off which was to kill President Maskhadov, The Moscow News suggested.
The paper also recalled that the previous attempt against the president's life was made back in July 1998. It was then that Maskhadov accused the so-called Wahhabi of trying to destabilise the situation in the republic and to usurp power. The Islamic regiment commander, General Arbi Barayev, was reduced to the ranks. However, he still managed to preserve a well-armed group. Vice Premier and Maskhadov's closest ally Turpal Atgeriyev several times accused Barayev of kidnapping, including kidnapping and murdering three Britons and a New Zealander. However, each attempt to bring the "Wahhabi" to the Court of Shari'ah ended in mass protests of field commanders opposed to the government, who eventually set up a Court of Shari'ah of their own and a Shura - a body parallel to the State Council.
All the above events put into order directly suggest a very unexpected conclusion, the newspaper notes. The field commanders opposed to Maskhadov make a counter-manoeuvre each time something threatens the "Wahhabi". No one in Chechnya has so far officially linked the "Wahhabi" from Urus-Martan and the commanders of the opposition Shura. It is known, however, that the "Wahhabi" have to do with the money flows coming into the republic. The Chechens at least think such connection quite possible between Shamil Basayev and the "Wahhabi" through his advisor Khattab of Jordan. One can suppose that the names of Khattab's trainees and the "Wahhabi" are inscribed on the arrest warrants.
The Russian Minister for Nationalities, Ramazan Abdulatipov, said in an interview with Rossiiskiye Vesti on March 24, 1999: "Having learned that the Chechen president is safe and sound, I said, if Maskhadov again attributes the attempt to Moscow special services, it would mean he hasn't understood a thing."
In Abdulatipov's opinion, the Chechen President has exhausted his potential to pursue the policy he has declared with his allies who have now abandoned him. Today he vitally needs the cooperation of the federal government, more than ever. However, he is still wary of making more serious steps to meet Moscow half-way.
Moscow needs him, too. The federal government has no other partner in that republic. According to the Minister's information, the Rossiiskiye Vesti wrote, Boris Yeltsin and Yevgeny Primakov were willing to make steps as large as possible, within the framework of the earlier formula "Chechnya acquires maximum; Russia loses minimum".
Abdulatipov was sceptical about Maskhadov's desire to play in Raduyev's or Udugov's political field: he would receive no support there. The Chechen president can be strong in a different way, but for that, he must relinquish the burden of certain ideas, one of them having to do with the immediate defining of the republic's status. The Minister has once suggested to the Chechen president adjourning it for about a decade, in order to give the people a chance to return to a normal life; to give them a break.
The Nationalities Minister also said that he pinned great hopes on the meeting between the Chechen leader and Yevgeny Primakov. He confirmed the information of the Premier's visit to the Caucasus being prepared, to attend the session of the North Caucasus Economic Association. The Primakov - Maskhadov meeting was important, according to him; even more so were both leaders' talks with other North Caucasus republics' heads. If the region's governments do not unite, they will further be helpless vis-a-vis the well-organised international extremist and criminal groups, which are capable of kindling a confrontation between their peoples.
The Nezavisimaya gazeta of April 6, 1999 published the article by President of the Reforma Foundation Martin Shakkum "Will Chechnya Govern Russia?". Its author advocated a harsher tone at Moscow's talks with Grozny.
There is logic, on the face of it, in an attempt to agree with Maskhadov on joint actions against the opposition led by certain field commanders, Shakkum believes. Maskhadov's enemies are also those of Russia - terrorists Basayev and Raduyev. It would seem that, having aided Maskhadov against them, Moscow could count on some reciprocal steps on his part. This is but an illusion, he asserts. To Maskhadov, the "true Moslems", Basayev and Raduyev, are million times dearer than "the infidels" of the Russian government. The former have marched side by side with him through the victorious bloody war. It is always easy for them to find a common language vis-a-vis the common enemy, Russia. Having stepped on the path of the de-facto support of terrorism, Maskhadov lost even the shadow of legitimacy. His reasoning for the impossibility of Basayev's arrest, because "he is the leader of hundreds of fighters who have made a fair war" (on Russia), is nothing but indulgence to Basayev to commit new terrorist acts.
"Is it not high time we understood that to make agreements with bandits and terrorists is a waste of time and effort?", the author of the article asks.
He further pronounced his support for the implementation of the measures which Interior Minister Sergei Stepashin suggested in his statement after the kidnapping of General Shpigun.
First: to undermine the economic basis of the Chechen fighters, that is to call a halt to the criminal Chechen business throughout Russia.
Second: to carry out strikes on the terrorists' training centres based in Chechnya.
Third: to react as harshly as possible to every case of hostage-taking. Action must be taken following the scheme once used by the US police in the first years of President Roosevelt's tenure: Each murder or kidnapping of police officers was retaliated by massive operations dealing far greater damage to the bandits. All the more so since the Russian Criminal Code is still in force in Chechnya.
According to Shakkum, there is no other option but this tough policy. As for the Russian government, by showing a lack of resolution and will, it will sooner or later face armed raids by Chechen fighters into Russia, further and further each time. What the Russian government is doing now - issuing ultimatums which are not followed by anything - is the most ruinous path. It is my conviction, Shakkum says, that a true leader will emerge in Russia, who will be able to channel the settlement of the Chechen problem along a constructive course, acceptable for all the Russian Federation's peoples.
The Primakov - Maskhadov meeting in Vladikavkaz never took place. It was officially announced that it was rescheduled for a later date because of the events in Yugoslavia. In early April, new information appeared in the media - that of a possible meeting between Maskhadov and Yeltsin, not Primakov.
The Nezavisimaya gazeta of April 20, 1999, wrote that President Yeltsin was first doubtful when considering the proposals of a personal meeting coming from Grozny. He offered his own rationale for the pause in the Russian-Chechen contacts: "We gave Grozny time, so that they could see for themselves: a republic within Russia cannot function without Russia. It is impossible. Time has shown that the West does not need Chechnya - it has enough headaches without it."
The Novye izvestia (04/21/99) commentary points to Grozny's positive reaction to the Russian president's unexpected willingness to meet with Maskhadov. At the same time, the newspaper suggests that the key stumbling block in the talks could lie outside the economic and social restoration of Chechnya - it could be the issue of that republic's political status.
In an interview with the Komsomolskaya pravda" of March 16, 1999, Maskhadov said that he was willing to compromise in the talks with Moscow, but for one thing - Chechnya's independence.
In connection with the projected Yeltsin - Maskhadov meeting, the media kept reminding of the upcoming second anniversary of the signing of the Moscow - Grozny Agreement on Peace and Principles of Mutual Relations (May 12, 1999). Each of the sides keeps interpreting this document in its own way, just like the Khasavyurt agreements.
Ilya Maksakov (the Nezavisimaya gazeta of 05/12/99), wrote that in Moscow, opinions clash as the North Caucasus policies are being developed, basically on the issue of applying harsher measures in regard to the rebel Chechnya. The leaders of the other North Caucasus republics still object to the introduction of a blockade or application of other emergency measures. They are trying to convince the federal government, which, on the other hand, is pressurised by the power ministries and the Stavropol territorial government advocating tougher action.
This disagreement, according to the NG, is evidenced by the early May meeting between Aslan Maskhadov and the leaders of Ingushetia, Ruslan Aushev, North Ossetia, Aleksandr Dzasokhov, and Daghestan, Magomedali Magomedov, held in Nazran in a top secret environment. On May 5, Aleksandr Dzasokhov, who was authorised by the others, reported the outcome to President Yeltsin. It is noteworthy that Stavropol Governor Aleksandr Chernogorov, a consistent advocate of a blockade of Chechnya, was not invited to the Nazran meeting. President Aushev of Ingushetia, despite the tragic incidents in which
Ingush policemen were killed, has not changed his position, objecting to the complete "closure" of the Ingush-Chechen border, because this measure would be the hardest on common Chechens.
The Nezavisimaya gazeta of May 12, 1999, referring to the Nazran meeting participants, wrote that Maskhadov was supported by one-fourth of Chechnya's population, while no other Chechen leader can count for even that much support. Hence the recommendations to the federal government to support Maskhadov, because there is no alternative to him as a moderate politician in Chechnya.
In the early morning of May 16, bombs went off in apartment houses in the town of Sputnik (a suburb of Vladikavkaz), killing and injuring people.
A correspondent of Segodnya, Andrei Viktorov, reported from North Ossetia on May 17 that the first blast in Sputnik (a former military cantonment, mostly inhabited by families of retired officers of the North-Caucasus Military Districts's 58th Army) occurred in the basement of building No. 39 at around 6:15 am. A few minutes later, as a militia car was approaching the site, another bomb exploded in building No. 49. That blast was not the last one, however: at 6:30, a powerful explosion wiped out several apartments in building No. 51. Blaze raged through all the affected five-storey apartment blocs following the explosions. Only by 8:30 the fire was eventually extinguished.
The site was immediately encircled by police, while bomb specialists started methodically examining the remnants of the bombs and searching entrances of the neighbouring houses. In a few minutes, another bomb was discovered in building No. 56, equivalent to 1.5 kilos of TNT, which fortunately failed. According to Segodnya, the terrorists used electric detonators.
The newspaper Rabochaya Tribuna (05/18/99) reported that the bombs must have been operated by one remote control unit, because the blasts occurred one by one, at an interval of 10 to 15 seconds.
This is what the head of the Republican Emergencies Ministry's rescue service, Ruslan Tavaseyev, reported:
"The damaged apartment blocs were a horrible sight. The lower storeys were damaged the most. In building No. 49, a passage through appeared on the place of one entrance. In the other two buildings, the lower staircases collapsed, and the floors came down into the basement. The concrete panels opened, but did not collapse like a house of cards by pure luck. According to preliminary data, 18 apartments were destroyed completely, and over 80, partly. One of the buildings is beyond restoration; the other two require major repairs".
Many publications of those days noted that the terrorist acts in Vladikavkaz, and the frequent provocations on the borders of Daghestan, Ingushetia and Chechnya, generate many rumors and versions. The talk of the inevitable large-scale clashes in Daghestan and South Ossetia is becoming louder.
Interfax-Vremya (05/21/99) quoted Ramazan Abdulatipov as dubbing the new blasts in North Ossetia "graduation exams" of Khattab's trainees, who have completed the programme of his terrorist-preparation camp.
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