Focus: Welcome to Hell

How did Chechnya - a country once applauded by the West for its spirit of independence - descend to such levels of chaos and barbarism?

Six weeks ago, looking as inconspicuous as possible in the back of a battered Lada taxi, I slipped into hostage country for a few hours to confront the President of Chechnya, Aslan Maskhadov, about the fate of three Britons and one New Zealander abducted in his republic.

When we met in Ingushetia - a few miles from the Chechen border -the change in the man was striking. Gone was the air of self-assurance and seasoned competence that this former separatist general displayed on his election day in January 1997. He seemed gaunt and depressed, like a man losing his grip.

Last week's events could not have provided a more sickening example of how true that now is. During our meeting, Maskhadov said he would accept "full responsibility" for the four men (though he grumbled about their presence in the republic). They subsequently became victims of an atrocity which was shocking in its bestiality even by the terrible standards of the Chechen war. Full responsibility turned out to mean nothing at all.

In retrospect, his words never meant much. From a distance, outsiders might have imagined that Chechnya's government bears some resemblance to a functioning institution. But not so. Establishing his authority as leader of the north Caucasus republic was always going to be extremely difficult for Maskhadov amid the trauma and disorder that followed the 21-month war of secession with Russia in which tens of thousands died. But he has got nowhere.

Kidnapper warlords, flush with the seven-figure ransom proceeds from their trade in human beings, are richer, more ruthless and better armed than he. His opponents include some romanticised heroes of the war - notably, Shamil Basayev, who led a mass hostage-taking in southern Russia in 1995 in one of the most audacious operations in the war. Maskhadov has tried, and failed, to put down opposition from the outlawed one-eyed fighter commander Salman Raduyev, who believes Maskhadov sold out to the Russians by failing to insist on immediate, outright independence as a condition of peace in 1996.

Maskhadov's administration has proved highly vulnerable. The head of the anti-kidnapping unit - a singularly unsuccessful outfit - was killed by a car bomb last month. On Friday there was further humiliation when the Prosecutor-General, Mansur Tagirov, was abducted. He was later released. The Vice-President, Vakha Arsanov, has been accused of protecting hoods in the kidnapping racket. Chaos abounds.

Still worse, Maskhadov has watched helplessly as fundamentalist Wahhabi groups, with Saudi Arabian backing, have operated unchecked, challenging Chechnya's semi-secular Islam. Most notorious among them is Arbi Barayev, a young and particularly ruthless leader whose stronghold is in Urus-Martan. Barayev is believed by many to be behind the kidnapping of the four engineers murdered last week and the British aid workers, Jon James and Camilla Carr, who were released in September.

It is hardly surprising, then, that the creation of a civil society in Chechnya has gone nowhere. More than two years after the war's end, Grozny still looks like Dresden at the end of the Second World War, a Stonehenge of charred foundations.

Nothing works. There is no proper sewage system, no working medical service, no tax-funded functioning local government. Awash with arms, unemployed former fighters and downright bandits, the place is paralysed by crime, trauma and the sheer scale of the task of rebuilding itself.

It has, in some ways, returned to the wild days that began in 1991 when the macho and despotically inclined president Dzhokhar Dudayev - killed in the war - declared independence from Russia. He ushered in three heady, lawless years in which Chechnya became a hub of arms-trading, money laundering and mafias. Until, that is, Moscow's armies intervened.

Maskhadov, a former Soviet army officer with a reasonable knowledge of the world, has sought to establish foreign links to further his aim of clinching international recognition for an independent Chechnya and to attract investment for rebuilding. But he has been floundering.

In March he visited Baroness Thatcher in Britain, where he was also hosted by Lord McAlpine, the former Tory party treasurer, and Lord Tebbit. Elements of the British right clearly admire the republic's courageous defiance of Moscow's forces, and see Chechnya's resistance against the last vestiges of Russian imperialism as worthy of quiet encouragement. After last week's outrage, he cannot expect further overtures to the West to be taken seriously.

CHECHNYA'S lawlessness has roots that run deep in the history of its 1 million people, whose land is tucked in a pocket of the Caucasus mountain range between the Black and Caspian seas. The very concept of state-imposed law - for so long synonymous with tsarist and Soviet efforts at controlling the wild Caucasus - has always been tissue-thin. Chechens look to their elders for guidance, rather than to a chaotic state whose shaky foundations are further undermined by the republic's indeterminate status.

The mess has spawned a tangle in which power, business, crime and Islamic interests have become enmeshed. It has also bred deep paranoia and suspicion, which reared up in the aftermath of the death of the four engineers. On Thursday a video tape surfaced in Grozny in which one of them, Peter Kennedy, stated that they all worked for British intelligence, and were providing a system that would be useful to the CIA, the Israelis and the Germans.

It reeked of duress. Apart from anything, the notion that the world's major security services (apart from the Russians) would want to eavesdrop on this remote corner of the globe is, at best, implausible. Though the Caucasus is a geopolitically significant region, and Chechnya has a Caspian oil pipe to Russia running across its turf, it is too small and internally riven by byzantine feuds to merit the expense or manpower of a Western intelligence operation. Many Chechens don't see it that way, though: spy mania is rife.

Echoes of this emerged before, in March 1995, when Fred Cuny, an American aid worker from the Soros Foundation, was killed along with three Russians in an area of western Chechnya not far from where the engineers' bodies were found. Word circulated that he was from the CIA, although no evidence surfaced to support this.

Yet Chechnya's paranoia about espionage is, given its history, understandable. In 1944 its entire people were deported by Stalin to Siberia and Kazakhstan, where tens of thousands died of hunger and starvation. Survivors returned to live under Soviet control, with its KGB snoops and meddlers, until the empire collapsed.

In December 1994 - keen to assert tough-guy nationalist credentials and provoked by a series of Chechen hijackings - Boris Yeltsin sent in the tanks and bombers to end the republic's recalcitrant attempts at independence. Grozny was flattened, civilians were attacked, raped and tortured; "filtration camps" were set up into which young Chechen men disappeared.

Though the Chechen forces amounted to no more than a few thousand men, they succeeded in both defeating the Russians and securing the moral high ground. Western governments, many of whom have internal secession disputes (Britain included), stuck by Boris Yeltsin, and said far too little to condemn Russia's conduct of the war. But enlightened Western opinion saw Chechnya as a tiddler nation that was being brutalised by a superpower merely because it sought - like more than a dozen other former independent ex-Soviet republics - to run its own affairs.

That moral credibility has now been lost. It was corroded by the killing of six Red Cross workers, including five women nurses, as they slept in a rural hospital in December 1996. It slipped away with every new crime, every fresh kidnapping. But it finally vanished when the severed heads of Darren Hickey, Stan Shaw, Peter Kennedy and Rudolf Petschi appeared in a sack by a roadside last week after what appears to have been a failed rescue attempt.

Some Russians have seized upon the incident as a means of justifying a war of which many of them were ashamed. "See how they behave?" said one friend, in one of many similar remarks in Moscow last week. "Just like savages. See? That's the Chechens for you."

The murders will have horrified Aslan Maskhadov as much as anyone. And, let's be fair, perhaps no one could have done anything to bring Chechnya to heel, given the deep wounds of war and the republic's reflex resistance to institutionalised government. At our meeting he openly despaired of the "tragedy" of his nation.

But the mere fact of his failure has ensured that Chechnya will be written off by most of the outside world as a no-hoper delinquent, a no-go area which is best forgotten about. Was that worth fighting for?

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