Chechnya (June 1996)
by Humanitarian Practice Network June 1996

In the last week of April, Dzhokhar Dudayev, the Chechen separatist leader, was killed in a rocket attack near the village of Rochni Chu. He has been replaced by Zelimkhan Yandarbaev, who, despite his refusal to contemplate peace talks with Moscow and calling for a jihad against Russia, lacks the support of former fighters on the rebel side who have expressed their concern at his lack of authority. However, divisions between the more likely leaders Maskhadov, the chief of staff and Basaev, the leading Chechen field commander as to Dudaev’s replacement (Maskhadov appears to back Yandarbaev while Basaev seems impatient to take over himself) may further damage separatist unity. It is unclear yet as to how the change in leadership will affect the situation on the ground – the Moscow-backed Chechen government leader, Zavgaev seems hopeful that growing tension amongst the Chechen rebels will direct conflict away from Russian forces – an outcome which would suit Boris Yeltsin, whose popularity in the run up to this summer’s elections could do with the boost which a negotiated settlement to the conflict would bring.

President Yeltsin’s announcement on 31 March of a new peace plan to include an immediate unilateral ceasefire by federal forces; preparations for elections to a Chechen parliament; a gradual withdrawal of federal forces; negotiations to reach agreement on the status of Chechnya; consideration by the State Duma of an amnesty for Chechen fighters and a financial package for reconstruction of Chechnya did not lead to a full ceasefire and hostilities continued on both sides, particularly around Sernovodsk in western Chechnya with significant casualties. As this Newsletter goes to print, top Russian and Chechen field commanders are scheduled to meet to discuss how to implement an accord reached by their political leaders on ending the 18 month war. As with the March agreement, the three-point accord agreed to by separatist leader Yandarbaev and Yeltsin includes a ceasefire, an exchange of prisoners and further talks on Russian troop withdrawal in return for rebel disarmament. Curiously, it does not include discussion of full independence for Chechnya. It is now in Russia’s interest (and Yeltsin’s electoral fortunes) to ensure that the military commanders stop shooting and bombing, even if the divided separatists do not. There have again been casualties on both sides since the accord. Since March, more than 10,000 people have fled the area, heading for Ingushetia, southern Chechnya or towards Grozny. But the capacity for these areas to support the displaced are limited and Grozny in particular offers little security.

Whereas in mid 1995, large numbers of displaced persons were returning to their homes and villages, worryingly, civilians are increasingly joining the ranks of the displaced in Ingushetia (60,000), and Dahestan (40,000). On 17 April, the UN released its 1996 Consolidated Appeal for Chechnya, requesting US$13m as opposed to US$25 in 1995 for the 92,000 displaced persons in greatest need out of a total displaced population of 147,000. A number of international agencies are involved in coordinating assistance, but access to besieged populations is extremely difficult in some parts and the situation is hazardous for aid workers – on 19 March, a Medair construction worker and interpreter were killed in North Ossetia, in March and early April, ICRC workers were kidnapped only to be released immediately and most recently, ICRC trucks were hijacked.