When Moscow celebrated the 56th anniversary of the Allied victory over Germany in the second world war on May 9, there was no mention of its latest military challenge, the fighting in Chechnya, stepped up by the Chechen mujahideen on the arrival of spring, and after the local pro-Russian administration moved back into a corner of Johar-Gala (Grozny), the capital, to pretend a semblance of resumed normality. Nor was there any mention of the fear, gripping Moscow and the capitals of Central Asia, of the operations that are usually unleashed by the fighters of the Islamic resistance in the region at the beginning of spring. Fighting in both regions is curtailed during the very cold winters, which make the movement of men and munitions difficult or impossible.
In Chechnya an explosion blamed on Chechen fighters killed six policemen on April 25 as the administration met in its new offices for the first time. The blast flattened part of a building in Gudermes, Chechnya’s second city, which is used by the interior ministry. According to official reports, five others were seriously wounded in the attack, which was apparently designed to show that the war was not under control simply because the administration moved into a refurbished furniture-factory in the capital.
Six days later, six Russian soldiers and the head of a village administration were killed as Chechen fighters attacked checkpoints and set off landmines. Saikhan Chukayev, head of the administration in Novaya Zhizn, and his driver were killed in an ambush on May 1. Four Russian soldiers were killed in 16 attacks on Russian positions and checkpoints over the past 24 hours, the official said. Two soldiers were killed by a mine explosion in Johar-Gala, which also wounded two more. But the real casualty figures could be considerably higher, as both Russian and pro-Moscow local officials are notorious for under-reporting the losses inflicted by the Chechen mujahideen.
The Russian authorities have an added reason now to underplay the extent of their losses and to present the Chechen fighters (and even civilians) as ‘terrorists’. The only national television channel, NTC, relied upon for relatively balanced coverage of Chechnya, was taken over by the state in mid-April. Now Russian television is pouring out endless anti-Chechen propaganda, automatically blaming any killing of civilians in Chechnya on the mujahideen. For instance, when Hozh Alsutanov, a shepherd, and three children of his family were found shot in the head in the village of Alleroi on April 17, ORT and RTR, the two state channels, immediately announced that they had been killed by Chechen rebels. Their neighbours, however, are adamant that they were killed by Russian soldiers.
That the war in Chechnya is escalating is demonstrated by regular newspaper interviews with unnamed local politicians. One such politician said: “The war in Chechnya is getting worse. There is a permanent war. The Russian forces really don’t control much of Chechnya. At night they stick close to their checkpoints and even during the day they don’t move far from their bases.”
No wonder, then, that the Russians are venting their frustration on the civilian population. Every attack on Russian troops is automatically followed by air and artillery strikes against the nearest Chechen town or village. But this is only succeeding in turning ordinary Chechens against the Russians, as Usama Basaiev, a Chechen working for Memorial, a Russian human-rights group, pointed out in another newspaper interview. “The hatred of Chechens for the Russians is deeper than it was even during the first Chechen war in 1994-96,” he said.
Hatred of Russian hegemony is not confined to Chechnya; it has also spread to former Soviet republics in central Asia, which is why the leaders of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are nervous about a small Islamic group. The group, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), has already turned its attacks on state forces into an annual affair, in anticipation of which targeted states prepare their forces for combat every year as spring approaches.
IMU is demanding the overthrow of the Uzbek government and creation of an Islamic state in the Fergana Valley, which stretches across parts of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Nine months ago, IMU fighters infiltrated the valley from several directions and clashed with troops in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. The insurgents came within 100km (60 miles) of Tashkent, the Uzbek capital.
This year, Juma Namangani, the 32-year-old Uzbek leader of IMU, wants to increase support for IMU among ordinary people. According to Kathleen Samuel, political officer in the Kyrgiz city of Osh for the Organisation of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), “there is a belief that the fighting will be stronger this year,” as the insurgents need to build support. And a foreign government official in southern Kyrgyzstan said in a newspaper interview that “Namangani did not go further in 1999 and 2000 because he didn’t plan to.”
Estimates of IMU’s strength vary from a few hundred to several thousand men. President Askari Aliyev of Kyrgyzstan described the threat posed by IMU as “most serious” during an interview early in May. “This is the most serious type of threat, and we will continue to face this danger for many years,” he said. Apparently reflecting his concern, Kyrgyzstan has increased its military spending: it now spends 13 percent of its national budget on defence. Uzbekistan called up extra troops in March and is trying to improve the equipment and mobility of its forces in preparation for the inevitable clash with the mujahideen.
Russia is equally concerned about the impact of IMU’s insurgency on its already dwindling influence in the region, and in Chechnya and other Caucasian republics. It has offered military assistance to Central Asian states, and Russian troops took part in ‘anti-terrorist’ exercises throughout April in southern Kyrgyzstan. In Tajikistan, Moscow is establishing a military base and stationing 12,000 troops to patrol the border with Afghanistan. But it has been snubbed by Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, which have turned down its offer to send troops to fight IMU activists, which it probably does not mind. After all, the Russian army is short of conscripts, as Vladislav Putilin, the army’s deputy chief of staff, publicly admitted in early May, and cannot pay the demoralised and inexperienced troops it already has in Chechnya.