Russia's Interior Ministry recently produced a brief documentary to dramatize growing lawlessness in Chechnya and other restive regions, but the images in the film turned out to be so shocking that it has been kept out of public view, shown only on request to journalists.
In one scene, an unidentified hostage appears on the screen, with the curved blade of a knife pressed against his throat. In several seconds of extremely graphic violence, the man appears to be killed.
A government narrator intones during the footage--among several similar scenes sent to relatives of captives by kidnappers--"There are no fictitious scenes here, nothing staged. Only facts."
Russia's war with separatists in Chechnya ended almost three years ago, yet tension and periodic violence persist. Kidnapping and other forms of lawlessness there are the most severe symptoms of the centrifugal forces pulling Russia apart, as provinces and regional governments operate outside the control of a weak central government.
In Russia's north Caucasus area, which includes Chechnya, the past two months have been especially unsettling. Nominally, Chechnya is still part of Russia, pending final talks on its status. Russia does not want to let go of the region, even though its troops were driven out in the civil war.
In reality, Chechnya is on its own, running under an Islam-based legal system. But law has not brought order; the kidnappings, for instance, appear to be beyond the control of either Russian or Chechen officials.
Disturbingly for Russia, turbulence has spilled over into neighboring regions. Rarely has a day gone by this summer without some abduction, car bombing, shooting or other violence, sometimes involving Chechen and Russian border troops. Since the beginning of the year, 45 Russian servicemen have been killed in border incidents, the government says.
The persistent problems could have political consequences in Moscow. Some commentators worry that unrest might prompt President Boris Yeltsin to declare a national state of emergency. Such a declaration could force postponement of this winter's key parliamentary elections, in which Yeltsin and rivals are vying hard for control of Russia's legislature.
"We are not at war with Chechnya, but we have taken and will be taking resolute and necessary measures to keep the gangsters in check and retaliate for attacks they make," said Interior Minister Vladimir Rushailo.
This week, Russian and Chechen forces engaged in a shootout near the town of Kizlyar, at the border between Chechnya and the Russian province of Dagestan. The Russians fired on a Chechen outpost, destroyed the small building and killed one Chechen policeman. Since then, the Russians have dug trenches on the Dagestan side of the border. The crossing now looks more like a frontier between two warring nations.
The day before, Chechen leaders showed reporters 18 Russians they said were dispatched to the province by the Russian intelligence agency to assassinate Chechen officials. Russian officials said the claim was false.
These incidents followed a spike in kidnappings and attacks on civilian vehicles inside Dagestan. Russian officials said the violence was being organized from Chechnya.
Chechen authorities claim they are trying to crack down on criminals, but Moscow is suspicious, claiming that the taking of hostages from neighboring provinces is part of a plan to destabilize other regions and loosen central government control over them. Yeltsin and Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov are scheduled to meet next week to try to ease tensions.
Politics aside, abduction and ransom demands are an old business in Chechnya, where high unemployment and poverty turn hostages into valuable pawns. According to Russian statistics, more than 1,000 people have been kidnapped by Chechens in the past two years, of whom more than 500 are still held captive. Most of the victims are Chechens, although some foreigners have also been held. More than 100 Russian army and Interior Ministry troops are also captives. In early July, an American was released after four months. Two foreigners--a Saudi Arabian and a Yugoslav--are still missing.