Russia's New Chechnya Battle
War: Commanders launch campaign for hearts and minds in Gudermes.
November 21, 1999

By MAURA REYNOLDS, Times Staff Writer

     GUDERMES, Russia -- What the Russians tell you is that the war has ended here in Gudermes. But it hasn't.
     For one thing, the sound of artillery fire thuds steadily through the muddy streets of this former railway depot, once the second-largest city in Chechnya. The few residents left say the booming from Russian positions north and west of town is a constant reminder that their "liberation" by Russian forces 10 days ago is no guarantee that peace has come.
     But while the rockets and bullets are confined for now to the outskirts, another battle is being fought in town, street by street, house by house. It's a fight the Russians have lost consistently, not just in the eight years since Chechnya declared independence, but for centuries.
     The battle, to borrow a phrase from the Vietnam War, is for the hearts and minds of the Chechen people. And at the moment, the front line is Gudermes, which the Russians say they hope to turn into the new capital of a new Chechnya.
     "We don't want to repeat the mistakes we made last time," explains Col. Yuri P. Em, commander of the Russian regiment that has encircled Gudermes. "We don't want to destroy the villages. We don't want to destroy the people. This time, there is dialogue, dialogue with the residents and with the local authorities. The soldiers aren't storming the towns and villages. We are talking to the people."
     The people who are left, anyway. Residents estimate that only 20% to 30% of the prewar population of 50,000 remains in Gudermes. Those who are left seem to be those who either support the Russians or had no means of escape.
     The fact that they are preaching mostly to the feeble or the converted doesn't appear to trouble the Russians. They boast openly of the ease of their victory and warm welcome by the local population.
     "The people chased the rebels out themselves," the colonel says. "They wouldn't feed the fighters. They are sick of war. When we arrived, there was no one left to fight."

     Showcase Staged for Journalists

     Em is part of a Russian propaganda effort to convince locals--and a chopper load of foreign journalists flown in for the occasion--that the second time around, Russia is doing things right in Chechnya.
     "It took us just one day to encircle Gudermes," Em recalls, showing the foreigners around his picture-perfect camp on a hill west of town. "The local population came out to greet us--older men, everyone. They thanked us for coming into the city, asked us to turn on the gas, the electricity."
     So this weekend, that's what the Russians did. With as much fanfare as they could muster on short notice in a war zone, they turned on the gas. A couple of Kremlin officials flew in Saturday to do the honors, relighting the newly refueled "eternal" flame at the town's World War II monument.
     "Today, we are in Gudermes, a city liberated without a single shot being fired," said Nikolai Koshman, the Russian-appointed administrator for Chechnya, who was accompanied by Anatoly B. Chubais, the head of Russia's state power utility. "The most important task we face now is to restore normal life to the citizens of the town and the region."
     It was supposed to be a triumphant moment, full of symbolism and reconciliation between Russian and Chechen. But, as hundreds of Gudermes residents looked on, in what the Russians can only hope was not a portent, the relighted flame sputtered and died within about a minute.
     "They are promising so much," said 37-year-old Isa Natsayev, catching the mood. "But so far, we see little."
     Natsayev is a former driver who wants more than anything else to work and support his wife and two children. He supported independence in 1991, he says, but now "it's more important that the planes stop bombing."
     He says he has stayed in Gudermes as a precaution to protect his house from looting by Russian soldiers. He is unnerved by the continued bombing to the north and west.
     "I walk around with tablets in my pocket to calm my heart," he says, retrieving a small bottle of orange pills from inside his jacket. "The airplanes keep bombing. My heart isn't made of iron."
     Indeed, war weariness is palpable in Gudermes. But for all the efforts the Russians think they are making, it remains to be seen whether combat fatigue can be transformed into political support for Russian rule.
     The previous Chechen war, which lasted for 21 months from 1994 to 1996, was about preventing the republic from seceding. This war, which was touched off largely by terrorist bombings that killed hundreds in Moscow and other Russian cities, has, at least rhetorically, been transformed into a war against little except "bandits and terrorists."
     But in Gudermes, it's clear that the issue of independence hasn't died and that, for the "liberated" Chechens, relations with the Russians remain unresolved.
     Larisa Bashayeva is a 29-year-old secretary whose entire adult life has been spent at odds with Russia. She supported independence in 1991 and voted for Chechnya's pro-independence president, Aslan Maskhadov, in 1996. But two cycles of war and three years of deprivation in Maskhadov's "independent Chechnya" have sapped her zeal.
     "Independence is probably impossible to achieve, and simple people don't need it anyway," she says. "Eight years ago, there was something to it--there was an idea, a vision. But what do we have to show for it now?"
     The only people left who want to fight, she says, are "extremists." And she says the Russians are right when they claim that the residents of Gudermes chased the rebels out.
     In her neighborhood, "the fighters moved into an abandoned house," she recounts. "And everybody, especially the grandmothers, went to them every day and asked them to leave. And eventually, the fighters listened to them and left."
     But Bashayeva's disgust at war and dislike of the rebels doesn't add up to support for the Russians. Her cousin was killed when the Russians stormed Grozny, the Chechen capital, in 1995. A few months later, she watched Russian aircraft bomb a truck as a family of six, including women and children, was climbing aboard. The entire family perished.

     'Worst of All Are the Helicopters'

     As she is speaking, a new volley of rockets booms from the north and she casts a glance in the direction of the guns.
     "It's not the artillery that's so bad," Bashayeva says. "The planes are worse. But the worst of all are the helicopters. You can look up and see the person inside, see his face as he fires at you."
     She says the Russians are making a lot of promises at the moment, promises of public services, schools, jobs. Maybe some of those promises will come true, maybe "normal" life will come back. But that won't change her mind about the Russians.
     "There's no way we can say the Russians are good and thank you so much for coming," she says. "I don't feel like a Russian citizen. And I won't feel that way in a year or two or even five."
     If the Russian strategy for winning Chechen hearts and minds seems at times obscure, so also does the Russian strategy for winning the war.
     Gudermes is a scant 15 miles east of the outskirts of Grozny, which was bombed nearly to dust in the last war. Russian officials have refused to say whether they plan to retake Grozny, the stronghold of Maskhadov, whom even the Russians consider Chechnya's legitimately elected leader.
     But during the past few weeks, Russian forces have been slowly encircling the capital, claiming Sunday to have surrounded it "80%." Russian officials have said that by the time the war is over, Grozny might be too badly damaged to rebuild and that it would make more sense to move the capital to Gudermes.
     At first, Col. Em says the firing, audible throughout the town, is just target practice. But after a particularly large volley of Grad rockets--an expensive and powerful weapon--he acknowledges that they are probably, in fact, firing on rebel positions in villages between here and Grozny.
     The soldiers manning the rockets are more forthright.
     "We fire at them every night, in that direction," says Alexei Churkin, a 19-year-old from the central Russian city of Kirov, pointing in the general direction of Grozny. "For the most part, we do all the firing. They don't really fire back."
     Gudermes is only one of a string of cities the Russians claim to have retaken "without firing a shot." But all that means is that there is no street fighting when they roll into town. In Gudermes and elsewhere, the Russians have spent weeks lobbing shells and rockets at rebel positions first, and they don't enter the towns until the rebels have already abandoned them.
     As a result, the real question in this war is whether and where the rebels will choose to take a stand.
     In the last war and indeed throughout history, Chechen fighters have been able to evade the Russians by seeking refuge in the republic's southern mountains. It is not clear whether the Russians intend to pursue them that far this time.
     Gen. Alexander G. Mikhailov, who heads the Russians' press information center, gives a hint.
     Historically, he says, there are two kinds of Chechens--the mountain Chechens and the valley Chechens. "The lowland Chechens would farm and raise livestock, and the mountain tribes would just come down and loot. That's the reason a line of fortress towns was built at the base of the mountains." He implies the same strategy would work now.
     But that would resolve only the military situation, not the historical dilemma, not the political one. The residents of Gudermes know full well that it is not altruism that has brought the Russians back.
     At 15, Adam Amlayev is part of a new generation in Gudermes, on the cusp of fighting age, watching the Russians' return and wondering what it means. He says he hopes the war is really over, but if not, he's "ready to fight if I have to."
     Fight for what? a visitor asks. "My motherland," he replies. And what is your motherland? the visitor persists. Chechnya? Russia?
     Adam pauses. "If there is peace," he says finally, "there will be no difference if it's Chechnya or Russia."