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COLUMN ONE

Russia's 'Cruel' Soldier Comes Home

Rights groups say Lt. Gen. Vladimir Shamanov is guilty of war crimes in Chechnya. But voters in a Volga region that elected him governor hope he can impose order.

January 19, 2001|MAURA REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ULYANOVSK, Russia — There's a word that makes Lt. Gen. Vladimir Shamanov smile. That word is "cruel."

Perhaps Shamanov smiles because he's heard it before, that he was reputed to be "the cruelest general in Chechnya." Perhaps he smiles because he doesn't really mind the reputation.

For whatever reason, he smiles, and then answers the question in a voice that booms like artillery fire.

"I called in tanks to fire on the locations that were firing on us," he says. "And three days later, people began to cry, 'Shamanov is cruel. That's what Shamanov is.'

"Well, I couldn't care less what kind of Shamanov they call me," the general-turned-politician continues. "All I care about are the soldiers under my command, whose lives I answer for. I bear that responsibility. And what names I get called as a result--that worries me much less. The kind of general I am is a Russian general."

Many Chechens and human rights workers believe that Shamanov is a war criminal. They have documented instances in which troops under his command summarily shot and killed Chechen residents and looted homes. They also have documented instances in which Shamanov knowingly ordered his troops to fire on positions where civilians had gathered.

"His subordinates are definitely guilty of war crimes, and I believe a serious investigation would show Shamanov's direct guilt in war crimes as well, that he ordered them," said Oleg Orlov, director of the Moscow office of Memorial, the human rights group founded by the late Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei D. Sakharov.

But most Russians don't share such views. Like Ratko Mladic, the general who led Bosnian Serb troops during their 1992-95 war, Shamanov is a hero among his own.

That's especially true here in Ulyanovsk, a downtrodden Volga River city and region that was the birthplace of Bolshevik leader Vladimir I. Lenin, where Shamanov was elected governor last month. His new job is part of a campaign by a second Vladimir--Russian President Vladimir V. Putin--to bring order to the nation's unruly provinces.

"Cruelty, cruelty," mumbled Rimma Vasilyevna, a red-haired caretaker in this city's grandiose Lenin Museum. "If Shamanov is cruel, it will probably be better for us. What we need is cruelty."

Ulyanovsk is a hard-bitten place, a region about 450 miles east of Moscow with only a handful of large factories to provide jobs for 1.5 million residents. Although state statistics show it ranks about average in income and output, discontent runs deep.

"We've been standing still while everyone else moved forward," said 40-year-old Stanislav Pilipenko, a military officer. "I hope Shamanov will carry us forward."

For the past 14 years, since well before the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, Ulyanovsk has been run by one man: former Communist boss and subsequent governor Yuri Goryachev. He kept bread cheap--about half a cent a loaf--but did little else, voters say. He was defeated by Shamanov, 56% to 24%, a hefty margin considering that Goryachev controlled all the local media.

Voters acknowledge that they knew little about Shamanov when they cast their ballots except that he's a certifiable war hero: He was decorated twice with the nation's highest honor, the Hero of Russia.

Putin Comes to Aid of Criticized Commander

And they know he has the Kremlin's blessing. When Shamanov came under criticism last winter for his troops' brutality, Putin came to his defense, vowing that Russia "would never abandon" such a general.

Indeed, Putin is relying heavily on generals in his drive to strengthen state control of the provinces. Last summer he appointed seven presidential "viceroys," each charged with keeping an eye on a dozen or so regions. Of the seven, five are generals in the military, police or former KGB who, like Shamanov, are on leave but maintain their rank.

The Ulyanovsk region, it seems, is moving straight from communism to Putinism.

In an interview last week on his first working day as governor, Shamanov in effect acknowledged that the Kremlin asked him to run, calling it "a matter from the sphere of state relations."

And he took umbrage when asked about the incident in Chechnya that has triggered the most criticism: the siege of Alkhan-Yurt, a village seven miles south of Grozny, the separatist republic's capital.

For most of the war, Shamanov--as commander of the 58th Army--was one of the top three Russian generals in the war zone. He directed the western front, which at the time of the siege of Alkhan-Yurt in November and December 1999 was encircling Grozny from the west and south. Shamanov personally directed the attack on Alkhan-Yurt, which he described as a choke point to block the rebels' retreat from the capital.

According to a report by Human Rights Watch, Shamanov ordered artillery strikes on the village of 9,000 without taking serious precautions to ensure that civilians would not be targeted.

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