Russia cranks up propaganda war against rebels: Words, not action, seem to lie at the heart of the latest row between Moscow and the breakaway Chechen republic, writes Helen Womack

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The Independent Online
UMAR AVTURKHANOV, the Chechen opposition leader who has received overt encouragement from Moscow, claimed yesterday that Dzhokhar Dudayev, ruler of the breakaway Russian region of Chechnya, had been overthrown. But the Chechen capital of Grozny was calm, suggesting the announcement was merely to crank up a Russian propaganda war against the wild north Caucasian region and the fall of General Dudayev remained no more than Moscow's wishful thinking.

Mr Avturkhanov's announcement was issued by Tass news agency, which should have given it some weight, but the dateline was Moscow rather than Grozny, suggesting the Chechen opposition leader was in the Russian capital and not at home.

'The undemocratic, criminal- militarist dictatorship of Dzhokhar Dudayev has been overthrown,' the announcement said. 'Dudayev's three-year rule has brought the Chechen republic to the verge of economic and political catastrophe. Through the efforts of Dudayev and his henchmen, Chechnya has been turned into the main base of criminals in the northern Caucasus and criminals have become Dudayev's only supporters.' Mr Avturkhanov, head of a group called the Provisional Council of Chechnya, promised elections next spring and the restoration of normal relations with Russia.

Telephone lines to Grozny were difficult to obtain but a secretary in General Dudayev's office said Chechnya was calm. 'This council does not mean anything to us; it does not exist, we have no information about it.'

A Reuter cameraman in the area saw no signs of a power shift and the Chechen Prosecutor-General, Osman Imayev, was reported to have issued a warrant for Mr Avturkhanov's arrest on treason charges.

Tension between Russia and Chechnya rose sharply at the weekend after a hijacking in southern Russia - the fourth this year involving Chechen terrorists - ended tragically with the deaths of four hostages as Russian security forces stormed the helicopter in which they were being held. On Saturday the Russian government issued a furious statement which, in speaking of the violation of the rights of ethnic Russians, hinted at the possibility of armed intervention against Chechnya and Mr Avturkhanov was given air time on television, which amounted to Moscow endorsing him.

Then on Monday Russian Interior Ministry officials sought to make a bogeyman out of General Dudayev by displaying photographs of severed heads they said belonged to Chechens who had helped Moscow capture terrorists involved in a previous hijacking.

Chechnya has replied to the propaganda barrage by accusing Russia of planning to invade. According to Interfax news agency, 400 clergymen from the Muslim region rallied in Grozny and swore on the Koran to wage a holy war if Russia sent in troops.

When Chechnya declared independence in 1991, President Boris Yeltsin, anxious to avert bloodshed, decided to ignore the rebellion by General Dudayev, a former Soviet air force chief who had served in Afghanistan. Cynics said Mr Yeltsin preferred to leave General Dudayev in place than to support the opposition. But the hijackings seem to have changed the Kremlin's view and Russia's patience is now running out with the Dudayev regime, which it sees as a sponsor of violent crime and a source of regional insecurity.

On top of the hijackings, some Chechens are also behind one of the most powerful mafia groups in the former Soviet Union, whose tentacles grip Moscow and reach as far as Britain.

So anarchic is Chechnya that, according to the Moscow Times, private planes regularly leave the region on 'shopping flights' to Azerbaijan without proper air-traffic control. It goes without saying that almost every Chechen male carries a gun.

For their part the Chechens, who as a people were deported to Central Asia in cattle trucks by Stalin and only allowed back to the Caucasus after World War Two, say Russians are racist and stereotype all Chechens as criminals. The latest hijacking was a 'provocation by Russia'.

In the war of words, few people are saying anything constructive which might reduce tension. But Alexander Solzhenitsyn, back in Moscow after 20 years of exile in the West, said on television a few days ago he thought Russia should recognise Chechnya's independence. While separatism was nonsense for most of Russia's regions, Chechnya could stand alone because its population was relatively homogeneous, he said. The Slavs should unite and leave the peoples of Central Asia and the Caucasus to do what was natural for them and move closer to the Muslim world.

(Photograph omitted)

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