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Many doubt the Russians will ever leave. "Russian generals have zero enthusiasm" for Chechenization, says Deputy Prime Minister Doshukayev, because there's too much money to be made in Chechnya. The arms and explosives that kill Russian troops come straight from the Russian bases, according to local people and foreign observers. Russians deal the weapons on the black market even though they will be used to kill fellow soldiers. Guerrillas don't have to smuggle arms into Chechnya, says pro-Kadyrov newspaper editor Lechi Magomayev, because "they can buy them at the nearest base." Chechen officials say the military is also involved in oil smuggling and other rackets.
Various peace plans have been suggested for turning things around in Chechnya. One of the most detailed, put forward by Khasbulatov, speaks of giving Chechnya autonomy "under international supervision" within the Russian Federation. But Putin is opposed to anything that weakens Moscow's writ. And many Chechens believe with equal force that their only hope is independence.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, no supporter of the Chechen struggle, writes in 1973's The Gulag Archipelago that of all the people in the Soviet camps and in exile, the Chechens were from the "one nation which would not give in, would not acquire the mental habits of submission." The Chechens have lived up to that description. Unlike President Bush with Iraq, Putin can make sure Russians are not reminded of the Chechnya quagmire on a daily basis on TV. But silence is no solution. "I am here because it's the only job I know how to do," says Mikhail, a noncommissioned officer with the militarized forces of Russia's Interior Ministry, as he feeds a cat in the tightly guarded garrison that protects the Chechen government headquarters in Grozny. "This war is a f______ mess." Chechnya may not be Putin's undoing in the coming elections, but its endless nightmare is likely to haunt him in his second term.
--With reporting by Yuri Zarakhovich/Moscow