Chechen puppet walks the high wire

Andrew Higgins in Grozny meets Moscow's powerless front-man

When Salambek Khadzhiyev, front-man for Russia's puppet government in Chechnya, has important business to discuss, he leaves his office, wanders past coils of razor wire and swaggering soldiers in black bandannas, gets into an armoured personnel carrier and zooms off through the rubble.

Only when the Russian military has deposited him at a communications centre set up amid the heavily guarded ruins of Grozny airport can the man who is supposed to be running Chechnya reach those who really make decisions. He picks up a vertushka telephone, the secure government line that forms the umbilical cord of power across Russia, and calls Moscow or Russia's military headquarters at Mozdok.

In a land where the official car - whether a long black ZIL limousine or the more modest Volga saloon - has always been an accurate gauge of every official's prerogatives, Mr Khadzhiyev's dependence on an armoured troop carrier leaves little doubt about the source and scope of his own authority.

Mr Khadzhiyev, a 54-year-old petroleum engineer, is chairman of a so- called government of national revival, a body which was set up by the Kremlin to replace the secessionist regime of Dzhokhar Dudayev and add a civilian facade to what, for the time being at least, remains brutal military rule.

He has few illusions about the nature and limits of his power: "It is legitimate to the degree that any government of this type is legitimate," he said in an interview, the curtains of his office tightly drawn against the sun and snipers: "It is more legitimate than Dudayev's but in the classical understanding of the word it is not legitimate either."

With Mr Dudayev's former seat of government, the presidential palace in Freedom Square, reduced to a mangled heap, Mr Khadzhiyev has set up shop in his own old office at the Petroleum Research Institute, one of a handful of buildings in Grozny unscathed by the fighting. It is also one of the few premises that has electricity, thanks to noisy generator in the courtyard.

"Promising us a good life and freedom, Mr Dudayev gave us a destroyed city, years of unpaid salaries, old people without pensions and death for our children, " he said.

Unlike most of the Chechen opponents of Mr Dudayev backed by Moscow in the past, however, the soft-spoken Mr Khadzhiyev does not come across as a gangster. He does not wave a gun, and shuns both long black leather coats and camouflage fatigues. He has a kind, handsome face and, wearing a grey turtle-neck sweater and reading glasses, seems more a thoughtful professor.

It is hard not to feel a bit sorry for him. He is pilloried as a traitor by Mr Dudayev, viewed as a collaborator by many ordinary Chechens and surrounded by ruthless potential rivals from the anti-Dudayev opposition.

He denies any fear of assassination - the customary means of resolving differences in what, even before the Russian army moved in, was already a cauldron of clan feuds and political violence: "Anyone who was here in January is afraid of nothing. He has already seen too much. By now we are all accustomed to horror."

All the same, he judged it wise to leave his wife and three children in Moscow, where he served as the last Soviet Minister of Oil Processing in 1991. "What does my wife think of all this? She thinks I should give it all up and get home quickly. Well, not home - my home is here - but to Moscow."

Just as Mr Dudayev moves about constantly so as to keep one step ahead of any would-be assassin sent by Russia, Mr Khadzhiyev avoids sleeping in the same place to avoid any killer sent by Mr Dudayev: "I live in different places, sometimes in the city, sometimes in this building, sometimes in villages."

He first popped up as Chechnya's future ruler in December when President Boris Yeltsin, in the first in a series of premature declarations of victory, announced that the military stage of the Chechen campaign was over. His elevation is thought to have been engineered by the Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, a fellow energy-industry apparatchik, and has partially eclipsed Moscow's previous Chechen favourite, the deeply unsavoury Umar Avturkhanov, who heads a self-styled Provisional Council.

On paper, Mr Khadzhiyev has all the trappings of a government: a cabinet, a budget (though no income other than hand-outs from Moscow), the embryo of a local police force and even a flag - similar to the rebel standard used by Mr Dudayev, only purged of the sitting wolf, an emblem unacceptable to Moscow because of its associations with Chechen independence.

But the Russian forces, whose automatic weapons put Mr Khadzhiyev in office, make no attempt to disguise the fact that they alone have real power. They have divided Grozny into seven military kommandaturas, set up countless checkpoints - manned by cocky youths in sunglasses slumped in looted armchairs - declared a curfew and terrorised the city by shooting at anything that moves after dark. "You know how the military works," said Mr Khadzhiyev. "It has its own rules and logic."

Because of this, he recommends surrender as the only way to halt Russia's military juggernaut: "If a village keeps fighting, if they shoot from there with automatic weapons, artillery and mortars, then my government is powerless to help them."

But he insists ultimate blame must lie with Mr Dudayev, a former Soviet bomber-pilot: "He knew exactly what would happen. He is a military man. I'm just a civilian.''

Only by holding new elections, he says, can Chechnya move towards a more stable regime: "The earlier they are held the better. Theoretically, they might be possible in five or six months." But with fighting still raging across much of Chechnya and Grozny itself an armed camp plagued at night by bursts of gunfire, he admits it could take much longer.

Mr Khadzhiyev spends much of his time begging Moscow for money. He has secured the cash needed to pay teachers and doctors but not enough to continue beyond 1 April a programme of free bread for the city's dazed and hungry population. Appeals to Russian businessmen have yielded nothing: "Many spoke on television about helping us but so far we have not got a single kopeck.''

Russia has promised nearly a billion dollars to rebuild what now looks like Stalingrad. But there is little evidence of it. The only example so far of any "reconstruction" is yet more destruction.

Completing a process started by Russian shells, Russian bulldozers have just demolished the last remnants of the Hotel Chaika. This modest task alone took 20 days.

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