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Chechnya: new president but, technically, not independent

maskhadov February 12, 1997
Web posted at: 3:30 p.m. EST

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GROZNY, Russia (CNN) -- Under heavy security in one of the few public buildings not destroyed in Chechnya's separatist war against Russia, the republic's new president was inaugurated Wednesday, pledging to bring independence to the mostly Muslim region of southern Russia.

"I swear to reinforce the independence of the Chechen state," said Aslan Maskhadov, a former Soviet artillery colonel who led Chechen rebels against Russian troops, who were sent to crush them in December 1994.

Maskhadov took the oath of office in the 500-seat Khimik Palace of Culture in a suburb of Chechnya's capital of Grozny.

Swearing on the Koran, the Muslim holy book, he told Russian representatives and hundreds of armed rebels he would strengthen the Muslim religion and fight a crime wave in Chechnya, which technically remains a Russian republic.

Diplomatic no-shows

Also packed inside the building were religious officials and parents of separatist fighters killed in the nearly two-year war. Maskhadov helped negotiate a peace agreement with Moscow in August that provided for the pullout of the defeated Russian troops.


Russian national security adviser Alexander Lebed, who negotiated the truce on behalf of President Boris Yeltsin, was in the audience. "A legitimate government is emerging in the republic," he said. Lebed's successor, Ivan Rybkin, also attended.

Representatives of neighboring Russian republics and Muslim countries also were invited but diplomatically declined. Moscow, fearing separatism elsewhere in its vast territories, made it clear their presence in Chechnya would not be appreciated.

Independent or not?

Although Chechens consider themselves independent -- at least in name -- Moscow does not, insisting the region is a part of the Russian Federation. The peace agreement postponed any decision on the political status of Chechnya for five years.

"I think we're going to be involved in long and difficult negotiations with Chechnya," Russian parliament member Viktor Sheinis told CNN.

"But we can't start those negotiations with a formal recognition of Chechnya's independence. That would be an unreasonable negotiating position," he said.


However, Sheinis said that by the year 2001, "it's quite likely we won't have any choice but to recognize their independence."

Problems ahead

For now, though, President Maskhadov will need all the money, diplomatic skills and patience he can muster to put Chechnya -- physically broken by war -- back together again. The infrastructure of government and the economy are both shattered. In today's Chechnya, a roadside stand is big business.

About $700 million (U.S.) has been set aside in the Russian budget to help rebuild the region. It's hardly enough, but additional financing from international sources seems unlikely, says Dmitri Trenin of the Moscow Carnegie Center. icon (332K/16 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

Maskhadov won a landslide victory in the January 27 presidential elections. Now that he's taken office, "the formation of the cabinet of ministers will be his first step," said presidential spokesman Mayrbek Vachagayev.

"Then the president will start the work on restoring the damaged Chechen economy and combating crime."

His tasks also include providing social support to tens of thousands of refugees and other needy Chechens and reaching agreement with Moscow on the status of Russian and Chechen prisoners of war.

Correspondent Betsy Aaron and Reuters contributed to this report.


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