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Chechnya: Is Kremlin Preparing to Negotiate?

President Vladimir Putin may be manoeuvring to sideline the military and lay the ground for negotiations with Chechen rebels.
By Sanobar Shermatova

Russian president Vladimir Putin is slowly constructing a new Chechen policy, which could eventually lead to negotiations with supporters of rebel president Aslan Maskhadov - although probably not with Maskhadov himself.

A flurry of activity over the last few weeks on the Chechen issue suggests that Putin is trying to further reduce the influence of the military hawks in Chechnya, while Maskhadov is considering new proposals, which might put an end to the continuing bloodshed in his republic.

This new phase began at the end of June when Maskhadov sent a letter to the leaders of the G8 countries ahead of their meeting in Canada, offering to suspend fighting and begin new peace talks. Russia rejected the offer. Soon afterwards the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal published an article, two of whose authors, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Alexander Haig, were distinguished former US politicians.

The authors outlined new proposals for a compromise deal between the Chechen leader’s supporters and Moscow. The rebels would “acknowledge their respect for the territorial integrity of the Russian federation,” even if they did not disown their ambitions for independence.

Russia in turn would acknowledge the Chechens’ right to “political, though not national, self-determination”. Maskhadov would be encouraged to urge Chechens to vote in a referendum for “extensive self-government”, similar to what Tatarstan currently enjoys inside Russia. If the ballot was approved, he would then “demand that those Chechen formations that refuse to accept a peaceful settlement leave the country”.

The next contribution to the debate came from the well-known Chechen politician and former speaker of the Russian parliament Ruslan Khasbulatov. He published his own peace proposals under which there would be a “high level of autonomy for the Chechen republic in its international links and internal politics”, but under which it delegated its most important powers to Moscow and shared the same currency and defence space as Russia. Russian border-guards would remain in Chechnya.

In March, Khasbulatov travelled to Istanbul for talks with Maskhadov’s representative, Akhmed Zakayev. He then began a dialogue with the Chechen leader, exchanging messages by videocassette.

Maskhadov himself told IWPR in an interview recorded in April that, “If Russia is prepared to undertake internationally, through the mediation of other states or international organisations, that from henceforth it will not mount any more armed aggression against Chechnya… then we are ready to discuss any questions with the Russian side, including questions of independence.” (See CRS 133, June 13 2002).

At the end of July, Maskhadov appointed Kazbek Makhashev as his new special envoy to replace Zakayev. Makhashev, a former Chechen interior minister, was once close to the former president of Chechnya, Jokhar Dudayev, but then developed close ties with figures in Moscow, in particular the businessman-turned-politician Boris Berezovsky. He has lived quietly in Ingushetia since the beginning of the second war.

Senior Russian ministers have dismissed Maskhadov’s overtures. Defence minister Sergei Ivanov said that the only Russian official he should be talking to was a prosecutor, while prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov said on July 4 that “the only solution to the Chechen crisis lies in a normalization of the situation, not in negotiations”. He was repeating the standard Moscow policy towards Chechnya - continued fighting against the rebels and no negotiations.

However, there are growing doubts as to whether the Kremlin will stick to its position. One straw in the wind was the appointment on July 12 of Abdul-Khakim Sultygov as President Putin’s special representative on human rights for Chechnya. Sultygov, a Chechen, was until recently director of the little known Avtorkhanov Institute in Moscow and worked in the Russian parliament’s Chechnya committee. He is well known for his pro-Russian views and had never made any comments hostile to Moscow.

But since his appointment, Sultygov has publicly denounced human rights abuses by federal soldiers in Chechnya and called for them to be investigated. Those who know Sultygov say that his remarks must have been sanctioned by his boss, President Putin.

Sultygov was appointed ahead of other more prominent candidates, such as Vladimir Zorin, who has taken part in negotiations in Chechnya in the past and Nikolai Koshman, a former Chechen prime minister. However, in this case Zorin’s and Koshman’s close contacts with the military appear to have counted against them.

“We can’t allow the military to feel that they are victors,” a former high-ranking presidential official told IWPR.

In 1996, the rebels were able to use negotiations to regain Chechnya. This time of course would be different. If they take place, their main topic will be the conditions under which fighters can return to a peaceful life.

However, the Kremlin is in no hurry. Well-informed sources stress that realistically negotiations can be expected only nearer the Russian parliamentary elections, which will take place at the end of next year. Three months after that, in the spring of 2004, will come the next presidential elections.

It is difficult to forecast what the situation will be in 2004 in Russia. But the sources say that Putin well understands what a powerful weapon Chechnya could be in the hands of his opponents, if the conflict is not settled before then – just as Boris Yeltsin discovered in 1996.

But for a peace settlement to work, the president needs to take personal control of the negotiating process and bypass the military, which opposes peace talks. The next step may be the appointment of a special presidential negotiating representative.

Before this happens, the Kremlin will want certain other conditions to be in place. First of all, they want to strengthen local Chechen security forces, so that they can fight the most radical groups of fighters, who will not agree to lay down their arms. Then they want to create a law-and-order environment under which returning fighters pose no threat.

So Moscow may first try to approve a new constitution for Chechnya, which reinforces its secular, pro-Russian status. And they may want to wait for another winter to pass.

“I have the impression that the federal authorities do not have a plan, but they’ve decided to wait and see how the fighters survive the winter,” Khasbulatov told this correspondent in an interview. “I know that people in government are saying in the corridors that Chechen policy has reached a dead end, but I do not have any information from the Kremlin.”

Finally, if negotiations do resume, it seems unlikely that Maskhadov himself will take part. He is still on a Russian list of wanted men. But Moscow has at least embarked, albeit cautiously, on what could be the beginning of a political process.

Sanobar Shermatova is a correspondent with Moscow News.

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