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Caucasus Dispatch

The glitz and fanfare surrounding Vladimir Putin's May 7 inauguration led many to compare the event to a czar's coronation. A better analogy would be a shotgun wedding: everyone knew the real reason for the event but was too polite to name it. When the new president, in his brief and stiff speech, proclaimed, "We have one motherland and one people," everyone in Russia knew he was talking about Chechnya, the war that brought him to power and the consequences of which form the central challenge of his tenure.

When Boris Yeltsin tapped Putin as his successor last August, Putin proclaimed it his mission to restore glory to the military and order to the nation. He has accomplished the former by bombing away the humiliations of the past, along with most of the life in Chechnya. But achieving the first goal has come at the cost of the second, because, thanks largely to Putin's scorched-earth Chechnya policy, the entire North Caucasus region is now on the brink of exploding.

For starters, there's Chechnya itself. The Russian campaign to retake the regional capital of Grozny during the first Chechen war, from 1994 to 1996, left the city so decimated that a shocked member of a delegation from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe compared it to post-World War II Dresden. By the time the rebels took back the city, in August 1996, not a single building was left unscathed. I once spent the better part of a day there looking for a place to spend the night, in the vain hope of finding a house with both a roof and intact windows. Now, following Moscow's latest assault--which began with bombings in September and ended with house-to-house fighting in February--I doubt it's possible to find a structure in Grozny that even has four walls.

Grozny used to boast half a million residents. Today it must be the quietest city on earth. On my visits there--the most recent of which was last week--I found high-rise upon high-rise collapsed into piles of concrete. Monuments had been reduced to their pedestals. Advertising signs, pockmarked by shrapnel, served not to inform but to remind: internet in a city with no electricity or phone lines; automotive spare parts in a city with no cars; cafe in a city with no food.

The temporary authorities, installed by the federal government on legally questionable grounds, announced that the city would be closed and a capital for Chechnya established elsewhere. But by early April it was clear that the military could not keep the civilians out of their ruined city. People bribed and tricked their way past checkpoints to get to what was left of their bombed, shelled, and looted homes. More than 200 Chechens, led by a woman and authorized by no one, started rebuilding the Grozny railroad station. Finally, in a show of utter helplessness, the federal authorities declared that Grozny would be rebuilt as the capital.

As people return--the current population estimate, issued by the Emergencies Ministry, is 100,000--the Russian soldiers who formally control the city grow increasingly fearful. Their precautions range from the naive to the murderous. In what used to be one of the city's main squares, they have stretched chicken wire from one checkpoint to another, covering most of the perimeter of the square. Soldiers try not to venture past the fence. On April 6, though, I saw a military truck drive out of the square onto one of the side streets and start firing, unprovoked, into the basement of a residential building. Ask Grozny's residents, and they'll say this is normal: Russian soldiers fire at anything that seems to move.

Helping the Russians are, theoretically, a temporary Chechen administration and a temporary Chechen police force. Opposition leaders have returned from three years' exile in Moscow to assume positions vacated by politicians whom the war turned into guerrilla fighters. But the new administrators have even less control over their heavily armed people than did their predecessors, under whom kidnappers, robbers, and bandits thrived. And, if the administrators are at least fairly loyal to Moscow, the same cannot be said of the police. "Half of them have just come down from the mountains and shaved off their beards," says an interior ministry colonel who administers one of Grozny's districts--meaning that yesterday these cops were guerrillas. His 160 men work with 86 new Chechen police. "We try to do background checks, of course, but what's the point when we don't even have the ability to communicate with the city's other districts to find out if they've checked these guys out?" In other words, all a Chechen rebel needs to do to secure a Russian-issued gun and uniform is move a few blocks from his home.

Outside Grozny, federal influence is even weaker. The mountains, where a scorched-earth policy is far more difficult to implement, are outside Russian control altogether. Even the city of Gudermes, largely spared thanks to town elders who negotiated the rebels' retreat before Moscow started bombing, is not fully secure. Just last week the temporary federal-administration office was shelled; heavy fighting breaks out almost every night.

The disorder is hardly limited to Chechnya. The population of neighboring Ingushetia has nearly doubled, thanks to almost 300,000 displaced Chechens who have been there as long as eight months. Moscow has tried both carrot and stick to convince the refugees to return to "liberated" Chechnya: it has organized transport home and stopped food supplies to refugee camps. But, when they discover that they have no home to return to or that their native towns are still being bombed or shelled, many come back to the camps. Others arrive from areas of new combat, so the few who do leave the camps are quickly replaced.

In response, Ingush authorities are playing a double game, complaining loudly about the unbearable burden refugees place on the republic while simultaneously refusing to cooperate with the federal authorities' attempts to manipulate the refugees into returning to Chechnya. The reason is that the Ingush and the Chechens are closely related. They speak more or less the same language, they endured the same Soviet atrocities--in 1944 Stalin deported members of both groups to Siberian Kazakhstan--and, until nine years ago, they formed a single republic. Although that republic split in two when Chechnya decided to break with Russia in 1991, the administrative border between Chechnya and Ingushetia was never clearly demarcated, and the two peoples continue to feel strong sympathy for each other.

Until now, Ingushetia's president, retired General Ruslan Aushev, has masterfully managed his people's dual loyalties. When refugees from the first Chechen war strained the Ingush economy, he welcomed them--and offset the ill effects by securing from Moscow free-trade-zone status for his republic. But he has no more such tricks this time, and there are more refugees now, who are likely to stay far longer. Signs that the Chechens have overstayed their welcome are everywhere. Police have been placed on emergency duty to address outbreaks of violence between refugees and locals. And tensions, once they have escalated, are almost impossible to defuse.

The instability in Ingushetia is particularly flammable given the republic's hostile relationship with its neighbor to the west, the Christian and traditionally pro-Moscow region of North Ossetia. The Ossetian border is hotly disputed. Indeed, in 1991-1992 the Ingush and the North Ossetians went to war over a tiny region that belonged to the Chechen-Ingush Republic before Stalin's 1944 deportation but was later handed over to North Ossetia. Thousands of refugees from the war remain in Ingushetia, unable to return home because the conflict was put down but never resolved. Peacekeeping troops and good sense have so far kept the Ingush and the Ossetians apart. (It is still impossible, for example, to convince a taxi from an Ingush town to drive you to an Ossetian town a dozen miles away, because cars with Ingush plates are certain to be stoned or shot at in Ossetia, and vice versa.) But, with Ingushetia bursting at the seams, the Ossetian-Ingush conflict is all but certain to flare up again.

Like North Ossetia, other pro-Russian parts of the North Caucasus have also been destabilized by their proximity to breakaway Muslims. Here everyone has to pick sides. For example, the Adygei Republic, located to Chechnya's west, whose minority Muslim population controls the local government, seems to be siding with the Chechens: its constitution is remarkably similar to Chechnya's, and an Islamic militant organization believed to be aiding the rebels has its offices here.

Multiethnic but primarily Muslim Dagestan has a more complex position: A Chechen incursion in August mobilized Dagestanis to the Russian side, but the brutality with which the federal military drove the Chechens out left locals bitter. Perhaps fearing an uprising, federal authorities have sealed off the regions where the fighting took place.

Yet another explosion may be brewing in Karachayevo-Cherkessia. Ethnic Russians make up nearly half its population, but the region's two other ethnic groups, the Karachai and the Cherkess, have been on the verge of war since a Karachai won the republic's first gubernatorial election last year. Mass Cherkess rallies filled the capital's central square last year, and, now that Cherkess efforts to overturn the vote seem doomed to fail, those combustible demonstrations are set to resume. Inflaming the situation further, Chechen rebels have long been believed to maintain outposts in the republic--and in mid-April federal law enforcement authorities said they had arrested several Karachayevo-Cherkessia residents implicated in last fall's building explosions in Moscow.

Chechnya's bigger neighbors--North Ossetia, the Stavropol and Krasnodar territories, and the Rostov region-- have also been radicalized by the war. But in their case the effect has been to make them zealously, even militantly, pro-Russian, thus increasing the chances of prolonged conflict with Chechens and other Muslim groups.

In most of Russia, people support the Chechen war because they know too little about it; here people support it because they know too much. The federal military bases from which the Chechen war is conducted are located in North Ossetia and Rostov. Rostov is also home to the biggest military hospital in the region. As a result, the locals in these parts grasp the true casualty numbers better than most Russians. "You journalists never tell the truth," an airport cabbie told me. "A plane full of wounded soldiers lands here, and the same day you report there were two wounded today."

One in ten soldiers serving in Chechnya come from Rostov, but sending their children off to die produces in the locals a hatred not of Moscow but of their Muslim neighbors. Just about everyone I met, from a hotel clerk to two deputy governors, complained about Chechens and other dark "Caucasians"--a derogatory term, even here in the Caucasus--taking over the region. The threat is imagined--there are no more than 10,000 ethnic Chechens in the area, according to local authorities--but the response is real, and dangerous. Rostov's local governments have instituted strict, unconstitutional residence-permit systems to keep the Chechens out. And the war has strengthened Cossack groups that preach ethnic hatred. Most schools in the region have uniformed Cossacks guarding against the perceived Caucasian menace. Throughout the region, Cossacks patrol alongside police, checking documents and detaining ethnic outsiders.

Rostov's actual police are just as paranoid. They have been working twelve hours a day, seven days a week, since mid-September, when terrorists blew up a building in the region. In the following three months, there were 455 bomb threats--and each time the police sent out officers and dogs, often evacuating residents. So far all 455 have proved false, and all connections to Chechnya have proved imaginary. But that hasn't stopped the police from conducting endless "anti-terrorist measures": mass document checks and detention of anyone swarthy. Meanwhile, admits the region's deputy head of interior affairs, Viktor Burakov, "we leave the [real] criminals unattended." As a result, the number of unsolved violent crimes is on the rise.

This, believes Burakov, reflects a trend throughout the country: Some of the police are away in Chechnya, while the rest are fighting terrorism. Meanwhile, the number of rapes and murders grows. In short, Vladimir Putin's grand plan to bring order to his country has not just made Chechnya more deadly, and it is not just leading to civil war throughout the Caucasus--it is also bringing new violence to Russia itself. A shotgun wedding indeed.