Revenge of 'Mafia' republic follows years of persecution: Chechens have gained a fearsome reputation for violent crime in Russia. Andrew Higgins reports

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The Independent Online
WHEN TSARIST forces conquered the Chechens in 1870, they set up a fortress to bully their new subjects into submission. They called the place Grozny - Russian for terrible. The name was designed to intimidate. Stalin went even further, he deported them en masse from their homeland in the northern Caucasus to Central Asia. Thousands died.

Today, Chechens are back in Grozny and getting their own back on Russia. It is the Russians who are terrified now. Grozny is capital of the self-styled independent Chechen Republic, run by a former Soviet officer, General Dzhokhar Dudayev, who trims his moustache to approximate the wings of a nuclear bomber.

Other redoubtable Chechens include Ruslan Khasbulatov, speaker of Russia's conservative parliament and principal adversary of President Boris Yeltsin. Mr Khasbulatov, though, is viewed with distaste in his homeland. He has violated the fundamental principle of Chechen identity - hatred of Moscow.

Though only 957,000-strong at the time of the last census in 1989, Chechens are the most feared minority group in the former Soviet Union. They embody what have become every Russian's biggest bugbears - Islam and mafia.

Chechens are far from being fundamentalists but Islam has helped cement a fierce nationalism that terrifies Moscow, which refuses to recognise their breakaway state. It is a tradition of clan loyalty and vendetta, however, that worries Russians most, turning Chechens into the Sicilians of the former Soviet Union.

The caricature is crude. The mafia in Russia is far from being a well-organised, centralised structure controlled by a single capo in Grozny as many Russians imagine. But crime is rising rapidly - up 50 per cent for serious offences last year - and Chechens are often blamed.

The Deputy Interior Minister Mikhail Yegorov announced yesterday that Moscow had information on 174 separate organised criminal groups operating in the former Soviet Union.

Chechens' role in crime is exaggerated. They suffer from a general Russian prejudice against Muslim groups from the Caucasus. Russians themselves form the backbone of criminal syndicates inside Russia and in the United States, where the FBI has declared Russian organised crime a rapidly growing and particularly violent menace.

Chechen crime, though, is far from being a fiction. Chechens are linked by police to several of the most violent gangs in both Moscow and St Petersburg. They are also known as particularly efficient contract killers. They have brains as well as muscle. Chechens were involved in Russia's biggest bank fraud, which led to the arrest last June of at least 30 people from the Chechen Republic accused of swindling the Russian Central Bank of up to 60bn roubles, worth dollars 700m at the time.

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