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
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
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. …