Riga reconsiders Chechen leader

  • 2002-11-07
  • Steven C. Johnson

A group of legislators in Riga City Council said Nov. 5 they had submitted a bill to rename a street honoring a Chechen leader who many Russians consider a terrorist.

Supporters said the push to re-christen Dudayev Street, named for Chechnya's first president Dzhokhar Dudayev, was inspired by last month's deadly hostage crisis in Moscow led by rebels from the breakaway republic.

"After the terrible events in Moscow, we had to act," said Riga Deputy Mayor Sergejs Dolgopolovs. "There is no doubt that Dudayev was one of those who once commanded terrorists in Chechnya."

The City Council voted against giving the bill an emergency hearing this week, so it is likely to linger in committees and could take several weeks before coming to a vote.

Supporters are hoping to get vocal support for a change from Moscow Mayor Yuri Luzhkov when he visits the Latvian capital on Nov. 8-9.

The move comes as Russia steps up attacks on Chechen rebels and attempts to paint them all as terrorists akin to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda organization.

Dudayev, who became the breakaway republic's president in 1992, is revered by many Balts as an advocate of independence.

As a Soviet officer stationed in the Estonian university town of Tartu in 1991, Dudayev famously refused Kremlin orders to use the army to stamp out the nascent Baltic independence movement. He was later killed in a Russian missile attack in 1996.

"He was very important for the Baltics and is looked on as something of a hero here," said Estonian lawmaker Mari-Ann Kellam. "He was personally responsible for sparing a lot of bloodshed."

Latvian lawmaker Juris Dobelis defended him as "a general and a freedom fighter."

But to many Russians, Dudayev is viewed as the father of Chechen terrorism for leading the armed independence struggle against Moscow.

"Those people who took hostages in the Moscow theater were followers of Dudayev," said Riga city councilman Aleksandr Gilman, whose For Human Rights party sponsored the bill to change the name. "For Russians, it's like living on a street named after Hitler," he added.

In Riga, scores of protesters who gathered outside the city council Nov. 5 agreed. Holding signs emblazoned with anti-Dudayev slogans, they called for returning the street to its Soviet-era name, Cosmonaut Street, in honor of the Soviet space program.

"We don't need streets named after bandits and terrorists," read one elderly woman's placard.

Aleksandrs Zelcermanis, one of the three Latvians held hostage by Chechen rebels in Moscow last month, also called for a change upon his return to Riga last week.

"I am against naming a street for someone as questionable as Dudayev," he said. "Why not name the street for Gorbachev? He did a lot more for Latvian independence."

Similar calls have been made in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, where an NGO called the Russians' Union has called for changing the name of Dudayev Square, also named for the ex-Chechen president after his death in 1996.

Meanwhile, Lithuania's ambassador to Russia said authorities in Moscow had inquired anew about the activities of a Chechen mission headquartered in Vilnius, while Russia's ambassador to Lithuania called for its immediate closure. (See story page 5).

Always fierce supporters of the Chechen cause, some warn that the tiny Baltic states could be particularly vulnerable to increased pressure.

But while the Riga City Council wrestles with the name change, Baltic parliamentary leaders have in some ways reasserted their support for the Chechen cause.

In Lithuania, the parliament's Chechen support group lost one member in the wake of the Moscow hostage crisis but gained eight more.

Estonia's Chechen support group released a strongly worded statement expressing "grave concern" about a rise in harassment of Chechens in Moscow.

"We have a special sympathy for people fighting for freedom because we remember very well when our own freedom fighters were called bandits," said lawmaker Vytautas Landsbergis, who spearheaded his country's independence drive in the waning days of Soviet rule. "Nobody used the term 'terrorist' back then, but if they had, we'd have been called that too."