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The seizure of more than 800 hostages in a Moscow theater by a group of armed Chechens on 23-26 October has led many to predict an even more aggressive Russian policy toward Chechnya. But while this might prove to be the case, the gravest implications of the hostage saga might extend beyond Moscow's handling of the Chechen issue. It is also somewhat difficult to envision how Russian policies in Chechnya can become any more aggressive than they have been over the last three years of renewed conflict and casualties.

The most disturbing developments in the immediate aftermath of the incident were Russian President Vladimir Putin's call for a revised national-security doctrine and his vow to expand his own war on terrorism, extending the Russian fight to a broadened arena beyond Russia's borders and targeting "all places where terrorists and their ideological supporters and financial backers are based." This expanded mandate is modeled on U.S. President George W. Bush's doctrine of preemptive strikes and has given rise to serious concerns in the southern Caucasus.

This Russian variant of preemptive force is nothing new, however, and merely reinforces an already active reassertion of Russian power in the former Soviet republics. Although most notable in the Caucasus, this Russian reassertion has also been seen in recent moves regarding Belarus and Ukraine and seems to be held in check in Central Asia only by the U.S. military presence there.

Moreover, this reassertion is also an element in Moscow's overall strategic alignment with the United States and, in terms of Moscow's role in the U.S.-led war on terrorism, capitalizes on an inherent Western fear of instability and renewed conflict in the volatile southern Caucasus. This Western fear is reinforced by the likelihood of instability in Azerbaijan and Georgia following the departure from the political scene of the septuagenarian presidents of those two countries. And with construction of the long-awaited Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan export pipeline for Azerbaijan's Caspian oil finally set to get under way early next year, Washington generally accepts an increased role for Moscow to promote regional stability.

Such acquiescence to this bolder Russian agenda holds dangers, however. The most troubling development in the short term is the accelerated strengthening of the Russian state, complete with a broadening of restrictive measures on the media and an increase in the power of the security apparatus. This danger can already be seen in the recent return to Soviet-style secrecy and was even reflected in the government's handling of the hostage crisis.

The lack of transparency throughout the three-day crisis reveals the fundamental dilemma facing Russian society: a clash between security and civil liberties. Although this dilemma is also seen in the United States, the lack of strong democratic institutions and the concomitant fragility of rule of law in Russia only bolster the worst characteristics of an increasingly autocratic Russian state.

The first measures stemming from this new Russian national-security doctrine have already been implemented, as security forces have begun rounding up hundreds of Chechens and other people from the Caucasus for questioning. The sweeps also include the fingerprinting of Caucasians. Some reports indicate that these measures might be extended to large urban areas in many parts of the Russian Federation. Following numerous assaults and hate crimes directed against immigrants from the Caucasus in many Russian cities in the past year, such security measures might actually inflame ethnic tensions and trigger new waves of migration. A mass return to Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia of nationals of those countries who have for years worked in Russia would compound already high unemployment and result in the loss of huge sums of capital regularly remitted from Russia by those migrant workers to their extended families in their home countries.

The second danger is that the West might find itself too accepting of a return of Russian imperialism and even be quickly drawn into a spiral of renewed conflict in the regional hot spots of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Nagorno-Karabakh. The danger lies in Russia going too far beyond Chechnya, thereby upsetting the delicate balance of power in the region and actually exacerbating instability in the conflict-prone Caucasus.

The most vulnerable target of this expanded Russian doctrine is undoubtedly Georgia, although the implications extend throughout the region to include Azerbaijan and even Armenia. Aware of the inherent dangers, Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze has hurriedly revised his confrontational stance over the past few months and adopted a new cooperative approach, demonstrated by the extradition to Russia of five suspected Chechen fighters and suggestions of cooperation in the lawless Pankisi Gorge.

This shift also results from Georgia's realization that the limited U.S. military presence in the country does not provide enough leverage in the face of the U.S.-Russian strategic partnership. Georgia has now adopted a prudent strategic reliance on pipeline politics as a new avenue to securing Georgian statehood, with the expectation that pipeline security offers the most realistic means to counter Russia. This strategy is further strengthened by the growing Turkish military role in Georgia, only encouraged by Turkey's bid as a guarantor of Caspian export routes.

For Azerbaijan, even before the hostage saga, the past two years have seen a general improvement in relations with Russia, as reflected in the quick extradition of Chechens to Russia and cooperation in gathering intelligence on Chechen groups in Azerbaijan and neighboring Daghestan. Even prior to the Moscow hostage taking, Azerbaijani authorities moved against the unofficial representation of Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov by closing the Chechen cultural center in Baku. They have since followed up by closing an independent school whose pupils were mostly the children of Chechen refugees. In marked contrast to its tacit support for the Chechens in the 1994-96 war, Baku is now seeking to prevent any entanglement in the Chechen issue.

Thus the implications of the hostage saga suggest an empowered Russian state and a reassertion of Russian power in the Caucasus. It remains to be seen, however, whether Russia can temper its desire to subjugate Chechnya at any cost with the flexibility needed to maintain a delicate regional balance of power. But with a looming period of transition only exacerbating its vulnerability, the Caucasus might be subject to a resurgence of the conflicts that plagued the region in the first half of the last decade.

BELARUS SLAMS RUSSIA FOR CURBING GAS SUPPLIES. The Belarusian Foreign Ministry on 2 November issued a statement criticizing Russia's decision to halve supplies of natural gas to Belarus from 1 November, Belapan reported. In it, the ministry said the decision is a "deliberate action to exert economic pressure on the Republic of Belarus." Russia's Gazprom said last week that it is reducing its gas sales to Belarus by 50 percent because it has already met its export target to that country. Gazprom has accused Belarus of consuming considerably more gas this year than allowed under their contract (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 29 October 2002). "Apart from this [reduction], the Russian side refuses to compensate for the losses suffered by the Belarusian budget as a result of [the application of the country-of-origin principle to] the collection of indirect taxes in mutual trade," the statement reads. "It is evident that these steps by the Russian side lead to the destruction of agreements at the highest level and cause serious damage to Union relations between Belarus and Russia." JM

WILL BELARUSIAN, UKRAINIAN LEADERS CREATE PROBLEMS FOR NATO SUMMIT? Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has applied for a Czech visa to come to the NATO summit in Prague as the head of the Belarusian delegation, CTK reported on 3 November, quoting the Czech weekly "Tyden." "Tyden" noted that Belarus is a full-fledged member of the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council. According to the weekly, if the council fails to find a method of preventing Lukashenka from coming to the summit, the refusal to issue a visa would become the only possibility. Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma told journalists in Simferopol on 1 November that he will go to Prague during the summit despite NATO's decision to conduct a meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Council during the summit at the foreign ministers' level, presumably to exclude Kuchma (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 October and 1 November 2002), UNIAN reported. JM

WASHINGTON REPORTEDLY WANTS TIES WITH UKRAINE DESPITE KOLCHUGA ALLEGATIONS... A U.S. State Department official requesting anonymity told Reuters on 1 November that the United States wants to maintain a relationship with Ukraine despite the suspicion that Kyiv might have sold a Kolchuga radar system to Iraq in violation of UN sanctions. "We've already downgraded relations. We don't want to put Ukraine in the Belarus category. We do want to have a relationship," the official is quoted was saying. The previous day, an anonymous U.S. official told AP that the United States expects to impose additional sanctions against Ukraine over the Kolchuga allegations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 November 2002). Meanwhile, President Kuchma suggested on 1 November that he does not expect the team of U.S. and British experts that worked last month in Ukraine to return a clear-cut verdict on whether Ukraine sold the Kolchuga system to Iraq. "Approximately, they'll say that Ukraine has not proved sufficiently [that it did not sell the radar]," UNIAN quoted Kuchma as saying. JM

...AS OPPOSITION LEADER SAYS KUCHMA'S INTERNATIONAL ISOLATION IS 'OBVIOUS.' Our Ukraine leader Viktor Yushchenko told journalists on 1 November that NATO's decision not to invite President Kuchma to its summit in Prague is a "dramatic page in Ukraine's modern history [and] an obvious sign of international isolation," UNIAN reported. Yushchenko said Ukraine's current international situation is another argument for a political dialogue between Ukrainian authorities and rival social and political forces. Yushchenko also said Our Ukraine continues to conduct talks with the Labor Ukraine and Ukraine's Regions parliamentary caucuses on the creation of a democratic parliamentary majority. He admitted, however, that it has recently become "more and more difficult" for these forces to talk with one another. JM