Custody of police stations is key to balance of power

Chechnya's future: Rival factions vie for upper hand before elections

Achkhoi-Martan, Chechnya

Lyoma Masayev, police commander in the little Chechen town of Achkhoi- Martan, seems confident enough. Sitting under a portrait of Felix Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Soviet secret police ("Dzerzhinsky represents everything that's good", says Mr Masayev, proudly), he insists that his police have everything under control. "We are the authority, here. We answer to the MVD, the [Russian] ministry of internal affairs."

It seems logical that Mr Masayev, the supporter of the rule of Moscow, is now in charge in this unexceptional little town, 30 miles west of the Chechen capital, Grozny. Moscow is keen to emphasise that it has finally won the war in Chechnya (after inflicting such enormous casualties, how could it not have done?). There's just one problem with this version: it is not true.

One only needs to visit another building, just a mile up the road from Mr Masayev's police station, to find out just how wrong the triumphalist Kremlin version of events can be.

This second building used to be the conscription centre for Soviet recruits. It is still full of slogans about the need to defend the motherland. The sign outside the building, however, shows that it is now the "Military Office of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria." Ichkeria is how the supporters of the ousted president, Dzhokhar Dudayev, want the breakaway republic of Chechnya to be known. In short, this is the local headquarters of the rebels, the official losers of the war. Vakha Merzhoyev, the local pro-Dudayev commander, seems confident that he and his fighters - not Mr Masayev and his men - are the kings here.

When his visitors mention that they are about to go back down the road to the police station, he even offers an armed escort, because the trip "might be dangerous". In reality, the trip could hardly be safer, by Chechen standards. It is a two-minute drive, through a town where shooting is rarely heard - at least, during the day. Mr Merzhoyev, a former builder, is less keen to ensure our safety, than to show off his own clout, by driving us to the enemy's front door. Who's afraid of Mr Yeltsin's police? Not me, says Mr Merzhoyev.

The simultaneous claims to power of the pro-Moscow and the pro-Dudayev factions - not to mention a whole clutch of other would-be leaders - mean that all power is, in effect, paralysed. Chechnya is locked into a stalemate, which may or may not be resolved by elections, due in December.

Occasionally, this unnatural equilibrium breaks down. Last week, pro- Dudayev rebels occupied the police station in Argun, just east of Grozny. Eventually, the Chechen fighters abandoned the police station. The Russian military, meanwhile, bombed the surrounding area, killing civilians and destroying people's homes.

Yesterday, there were signs that a re-run of the bloody events of Argun might be on the way. Pro-Dudayev rebels seized the police station in Gudermes, Chechnya's second-largest town - in effect, defying the Russian army to do its worst. The Interior Ministry in Moscow sought to deny that the building had been seized, and yesterday evening it was still unclear whether the Russians would again launch a bloody assault on the police station - with civilian casualties, as in Argun - or whether some negotiated settlement could be reached.

As the example of Achkhoi-Martan shows, it may not make very much day- to-day difference who occupies the police station. But there is a symbolic significance. The status of the police stations is at the heart of a military deal agreed last month, which is supposed to pave the way for a lasting peace.

The agreement says, in effect: "The Chechens shall disarm. The Russian troops shall withdraw. And there shall be peace." Which sounds good. In practice, it has meant endless new arguments. How much must the Chechens disarm? How much must the Russians withdraw? Police are allowed to have weapons - which is one reason why Dudayev's men are so keen on being the sitting tenants, inside police stations across Chechnya, when the accord is implemented. Everybody else must give their weapons up - with the exception of small self-defence militias (again, the Dudayevites want these to be pro-Dudayev), which may be formed in some areas. Result: nobody in Chechnya really knows where authority lies.

As part of the peace process, the Chechens are supposed to voluntarily give up their own weapons. In the "military office of Ichkeria" in Achkhoi- Martan, some guns are piled up on the floor, in what is supposed to be a dramatic expression of the Chechens' goodwill in this regard. But most of the weapons are old hunting rifles. There are a mere six Kalashnikovs (the fighters' standard weapon) and four lonely mortar bombs. Even the Chechens do not bother to conceal the fact that this is little more than window-dressing. In the words of the Chechen local commander, Mr Merzhoyev, "We're not stupid. We've got a mountain [of weapons]. We can keep what we need.''

n Grozny - Clashes raged in Chechnya yesterday between Russian border guards and a group of Chechen rebels who were trying to leave the separatist republic for a neighbouring area, AP reports.