Ingushetia President Ruslan Aushev has been a strident critic of Russia's military campaign in Chechnya, coming out strongly against Moscow's actions shortly after the first airstrikes in September.
As the Russian military's ground campaign grinds on, residents of the breakaway region have been flooding across its borders to avoid the hostilities. The majority of the 200,000 refugees have headed west into neighboring Ingushetia - a tiny, impoverished republic of 390,000 people - triggering what international aid agencies are calling a humanitarian crisis.
Aushev spoke to The Russia Journal in an exclusive interview about Russia's campaign, its relationship to electoral politics and what the future might hold.
RJ: What would you say is happening now in Chechnya?
RA: It's another war, only the name is different. The 1994-1996 campaign was carried out under the name of "restoring constitutional
order," while today's campaign is being called an "anti-terrorist operation." But the substance is the same.
RJ: Refugees have said that what is happening is "genocide of the Chechen people." Do you agree?
RA: It is certainly peaceful civilians who are suffering the most as a result of this war. Bombs are being launched against towns and villages, causing great destruction.
RJ: Refugees say federal forces are bombing them deliberately.
RA: I don't know whether it's deliberate or not. Officials say it's not the case, but I have reliable information that strikes are being launched against populated areas. A fight against terrorism has to be a carefully planned fight. Imagine that I, Aushev, am a terrorist. If the aim is to kill Aushev, it makes no sense to launch air strikes or use weapons like the "Grad" volley fire system. These weapons cause destruction over a large area and kill innocent civilians.
RJ: Given the use of considerable military force, what is the aim?
RA: The official aim is to wipe out terrorist groups. But I think the aim is, in fact, to use military means to settle the issue of relations with Chechnya, since both the ability and the desire to settle the issue by political means is lacking. The lessons of the first Chechen war have not been learned. For the last three years, nothing has been done. All significant political events in Russia since 1991 stem from this question of power.
RJ: You think the future leadership of Russia is being decided in Chechnya today?
RA: Let's look closer at the situation. The first Chechen war began in December 1994, when Boris Yeltsin had to start thinking about elections. Just imagine if by 1996, the presidential election year, the war had ended in victory for Russia. Yeltsin would have sailed through elections and wouldn't have had to argue it out with Lebed and Zyuganov. Russia would have carried him triumphantly back into the Kremlin. But that didn't happen, and Russia found itself instead having to urgently find a way to stop the war.
The authorities always need the Caucasus to help them sort out their political problems. We've got elections coming up again, Duma elections and then presidential elections. The authorities have to decide which card to play. The economy isn't about to recover when one in three Russian citizens lives in poverty. Crime is flourishing. The prime minister himself said that every time you look, you see Chechnya. But it's hard to fight a myriad of tiny "Chechnyas," so the authorities have decided to fight the real Chechnya. Whoever wins and resolves the Chechen issue will have a chance of winning the presidential elections.
RJ: Is it possible to resolve the Chechen issue by military means?
RA: No. But people in Moscow, the president's entourage, and in particular the generals, think that it's possible. What problems in recent years have we solved through military means? Afghanistan? No. Georgia? No. The Baltic republics? No. And the putschists in 1991 failed, too.
RJ: There are more and more leaks in the press suggesting that the generals are putting pressure on politicians to not stop the war halfway. Does this mean the generals are holding the politicians hostage?
RA: The first Chechen war dealt a serious blow to the Russian generals' image. Chechen field commanders were saying they'd won the war, and the generals replied that they would still claim victory in the end, so long as the politicians kept out of the way. Now, the politicians and the generals have managed to reach some kind of consensus. Their interests have come together - politicians need a quick victory in Chechnya, and the military is still itching to make up for the old defeat. Then, after the terrorist acts in Moscow, Volgodonsk and Buinaksk, people want to see Chechnya crushed. And the military is saying "we will do just that, but only if the politicians don't meddle."
RJ: But several generals have already said quite openly that, whatever the political line in Moscow, they will fight to the end.
RA: That is a threat to the president. Yeltsin has to take steps there, find out who is saying these things and do what U.S. President George Bush did in his time with Gen. Schwarzkopf. The general had his opinion, and Bush had his. Bush wasn't afraid to remove the hero of Operation Desert Storm from his post. Now, if Russian authorities let themselves be led by the military, there's no telling what the consequences will be; what ambitions the generals will develop. Look at what has happened in Pakistan.
RJ: Could events in Chechnya lead to a military coup?
RA: No, the generals don't have that kind of strength. With the memory of 1917 and especially the repressions of the Stalin years, democratic Russia has seen the emergence of generals who would talk about it a bit, and then quiet down.
RJ: They'd get scared?
RA: No, it's not that, but they'd think of their families, their dachas, and they'd ask themselves why they'd want to risk losing it all.
RJ: So, what is going to happen in Chechnya now?
RA: There will be monotonous military operations. For the last month and a half, all we've been hearing is that federal forces have the terrorists surrounded, are approaching Grozny and have taken the high ground. In 1994, it took at most three days to do all they've done now. And as for these heights on Sudzhensky ridge, there are no heights there, it's flat, you can drive a car through there. What will they say when they really hit the mountains? It's going to be a drawn-out, stubborn and bloody war. The war, as such, is yet to come.
RJ: Is it possible to win this war?
RA: If they keep dropping bombs like now, then the troops will take the mountain regions; though there will be losses. But, even if they succeed, the question still arises, what next?
RJ: So, what next?
RA: I'd also like to know what they plan to do next. Logically, the refugees who have left Chechnya are supposed to return home. And Russia is going to have to maintain its authority over these people. But you mustn't forget that 500,000 Chechens live outside Chechnya - in Russia and the CIS.
RJ: The federal troops will capture territory and set up garrisons?
RA: And what if they do? How long will they keep the garrisons there? Decades? Then there'll be another [first Chechen President Djokhar] Dudayev, another [Chechen rebel leader Shamil] Basayev, another [Chechen President Aslan] Maskhadov. They'll kill them, and new ones again will appear. There'll be a partisan war. The garrisons will have to have something to live off, too. No one will let them live; there'll be resistance. People won't agree to living in an occupied Chechnya.
RJ: If you were president of Chechnya or Russia, what proposal would you make to end the conflict?
RA: If I were president of Russia, I would make the Chechens my allies in the fight against terrorism.
RJ: And what can Maskhadov do?
RA: Maskhadov asked repeatedly to meet with Yeltsin. His requests were turned down. Then he asked the leaders of the North Caucasus republics to examine his proposals for regulating the situation in the region. We examined and approved his proposals. The leaders of our region then asked me to meet with Maskhadov and confirm everything. But, when I asked Moscow to ensure safe passage for Maskhadov to Magas in Ingushetia, the FSB [Federal Security Service] and Defense Ministry said they couldn't guarantee his safety. So we gave up the idea, as we didn't want to put Maskhadov's life in danger.
RJ: Can you travel safely in Chechnya?
RA: No, no one can. If something goes wrong, you can never find out exactly who's responsible.
RJ: What do you think of Basayev?
RA: Basayev is used as a puppet in others' hands. For a long time, he fought under cover of the Chief Intelligence Directorate (GRU) as part of a special operation in Abkhazia. Neither Basayev nor [Chechen Minister Movlady] Udugov deny their links to Moscow. Neither denies that they met with [tycoon Boris] Berezovsky. Not [Chechen rebel leader Salman] Raduyev, either.
RJ: Concerning the recent conflict in Dagestan, the press has suggested that Basayev's interests and federal interests coincided there.
RA: I have some curious questions regarding all that. For a year and a half, the president and other Russian officials knew that Chechen rebels wanted to enter Dagestan. Why was the border between the two republics not strengthened? Why were border guards pulled out, leaving only the police behind? Why were the rebels let in so easily and then pushed back with such difficulty? I have yet to hear clear answers to these questions. Recently, I was talking with the troop commander in the North Caucasus, [Gen. Viktor] Kazantsev, and I asked him, "Do you agree that these are valid questions?" He agreed. So I asked him why, and he was silent. Probably, he doesn't know the answer.
RJ: What is the answer?
RA: I think the rebels were allowed in so that they could be eliminated and proclaimed the initiators of what would lead to the second Chechen war. And now, it's civilians who are being bombed. They have reason enough, it seems, to seek revenge. But where are the acts of terrorism perpetrated by Chechens? Why do they always happen before this kind of military campaign begins?
RJ: You don't think that Basayev was responsible for the terrorist acts in Moscow?
RA: I am the president of Ingushetia. It is the federal authorities who have the answer.
RJ: You think it could have been the secret services?
RA: I can't confirm that. But, on the other hand, what's the difference to Basayev if he kills 200 or 500 people. He's already up to his elbows in blood. He's got a guaranteed death sentence. If he admitted doing it, it would only bring him fame; he'd go down as the most desperate terrorist of them all.
RJ: Are there any groups in Chechnya today with which Russia could begin a political dialogue?
RA: There's one force: the lawfully elected president, Aslan Maskhadov.
RJ: But does he have any real control over anything?
RA: Yes, don't worry. But Maskhadov is afraid of one thing - that he will enter negotiations only to be betrayed by the Russians. It's happened before.
RJ: With Ingushetia caught between Chechnya and Russia, to what extent do you feel yourself a hostage to this war?
RA: The Caucasus in general is the testing ground for Russia's political forces. It is here that they score points before elections, boost their ratings, break into the Duma and fill their pockets. We in Ingushetia are hostages to this policy.
RJ: Are you afraid of the war spilling over into Ingushetia?
RA: Why would that happen? We are part of the Russian Federation.
RJ: But how does it happen that in neighboring republics, one is at war and the other is not? Is it just that the leadership in Ingushetia is clever, while that in Chechnya is not?
RA: Aslan Maskhadov and Djokhar Dudayev made a lot of mistakes, but, as far as I know, nothing Dudayev did was on his own initiative. Behind Dudayev were certain political circles and financial groups. Dudayev thought that if Russian troops invaded Chechnya, the world would do something. I said to him then that, on the contrary, the Russians would bomb and bomb, and that was exactly what happened. As for Maskhadov, with all the blood that has been spilled, how can he renounce independence now?
RJ: What needs to be done for the refugees?
RA: They need shelter, food, clothes and medicine.
RJ: There's a situation at the checkpoints, with people waiting days to be let through.
RA: It's a little better now. Two federal ministers have just been here - Sergei Shoigu and Vladimir Rushailo. They promised that refugee camps will be set up in several populated areas in Chechnya itself.
RJ: Not in Ingushetia?
RA: No, in Chechnya; in areas that won't be bombed. Though, I'm not convinced that all will go smoothly and without any provocation.