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Tuesday, 28 March, 2000, 11:02 GMT 12:02 UK
What now for Chechnya?
Russian troops
Putin promises not to let up in Chechnya
By BBC News Online's Stephen Mulvey

Vladimir Putin's statement that the war in Chechnya will be pursued to the end ought to come as no surprise - despite the chorus of appeals from Western leaders for an end to violence.

His popularity rests on the operation he launched against the Chechen rebels and it would be reasonable for Mr Putin to interpret his election victory as a vote of confidence from the Russian people.


russian soldier
The russian forces took no chances at Chechen polling stations
He has also pointed to the active participation in the election of Chechens in Russian-held territory as evidence of their sense of belonging to a Russian state.

Thus, seen from the Kremlin's perspective, there is less reason than ever to call into question the wisdom of the military operation - even if Chechens did vote mainly for the Communist leader, Gennady Zyuganov, as early results indicate.

The count has been delayed because election officials considered it dangerous to collect ballot boxes overnight.

Chechen Threat

On a less optimistic note for the Kremlin, the danger that the rebels can still pose to the Russian army was clearly illustrated on voting day, as Chechen forces mounted an attack in the region of Nozhai Yurt, near the border with Dagestan.

Russian aircraft were also in action on Monday the election, flying 90 sorties into the southern mountains.

The Russian authorities have repeatedly claimed that they are on the verge of neutralising the Chechen forces, but every time the rebels launch another ambush or raid on Russian-held territory.

Military analysts are divided on how serious a threat the rebels will continue to pose, but it seems clear at least that Russian soldiers garrisoning Chechnya will be harrassed for some time to come.

Spring

As soon as the spring returns to the mountains leaves will provide cover for the rebels to move about, and melting ice on high passes will ease problems obtaining military and medical supplies.

A pointer towards Mr Putin's next move in Chechnya came in an invitation from the mayor of Gudermes, Chechnya's second largest city, for Moscow to introduce presidential rule.

Mr Putin said earlier that he would take this step after the election, thus delaying the day when it will be necessary to find a credible Chechen administration to lead the republic.

Presidential rule may also help ensure secure channelling of reconstruction funds to Chechnya.

The Kremlin's chief spokesman on Chechnya, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, said on Monday that a programme of social and economic development for Chechnya would now be drawn up and that special measures would be taken to prevent the money being embezzled, or disappearing en route, as much of it did after the last war of 1994-96.

It is still unclear whether an attempt will be made to rebuild the shattered capital, Grozny, or whether, as the Russian authorities have hinted, pro-Moscow Gudermes could be made the capital of the rebuilt republic.

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See also:

09 Mar 00 | Media reports
Putin in his own words
27 Mar 00 | UK Politics
Blair congratulates Putin
08 Mar 00 | Europe
Why is Putin popular?
29 Oct 99 | Europe
Analysis: Putin's war
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