What Divides Russians, Chechens Outbreak of War Is Manifestation of a Centuries-Old History of Conquest and Rebellion

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RUSSIA and Chechnya both blinked this weekend in their face-off over who will rule the rebel region. Yet the last-minute hesitation against starting an all-out war may not be enough.

Russian jets have taken up bombing once again at targets throughout the breakaway republic, which declared its independence from Moscow in 1991. But they have refrained from bombing the capital, Grozny.

Midnight Saturday marked the latest deadline given by Russian President Boris Yeltsin for Chechen independence fighters to give up their arms or face a missile attack on the capital.

Just minutes before the deadline expired, Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudayev said he was ready for talks. Russia said at the time that the offer was too late, and bombed bridges and an airfield near Grozny yesterday morning. But since then, Mr. Dudayev has indicated a willingness to drop an earlier demand that he meet only with Russian President Boris Yeltsin or Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. And the fact that Russian planes have not yet bombed the capital leaves a crack in the door for talks.

Russians and Chechens have only shaky foundations on which to build peace, however: The two have been rivals for centuries. A Caucasian mountain people with a history of defiant independence and freewheeling banditry, the Muslim Chechens see themselves as a fiercely loyal nation with a complex clan culture based on unbreakable family ties.

But Russia, which has tried to dominate Chechens for decades with limited success and to keep the fertile, oil-rich region under its thumb, says Chechens have become the new mafiosi of post-Soviet Eurasia.

When the Chechens broke free of Mother Russia three years ago, many Russians say, so did their true nature break free of its Soviet-imposed constrictions. Since then, the tiny nation of 1.2 million has shown its true colors, they maintain, becoming little more than a seedy collection of fur-hatted gangsters and armed hijackers who stop at nothing to bleed their enormous neighbor.

"Other movements in Iran and Afghanistan don't even consider the Chechens to be one of them, because they commit such horrible crimes" said a Russian woman who gave her name only as Valentina.

Chechens, for their part, are remarkably good humored toward the Russians, and rarely take offense at Russian stereotypes about them.

"I have nothing against the Russians, but a man has to defend his homeland," said successful restaurateur Ruslan Dagayev as he prepared to go to war under the proud eyes of his family.

Cardboard boxes full of homemade Molotov cocktails filled one basement room of his eatery in Grozny, while upstairs in the main dining room he carefully slipped on a "death warrior" outfit over his suit and tie -- a thick jumpsuit of plain white fabric that could double as a shroud.

Mr. Dagayev insisted he is prepared to give up his livelihood for the sake of the struggle. "A man isn't a man unless he is ready to fight," he said.

"I loved the Russians, but they are attacking us, and we have to fight back" he said, before playing a few farewell tunes on an upright piano where several hand grenades lay neatly in a row. …