Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Maskhadov Seeks Negotiations

In an interview with IWPR, the rebel Chechen president hints at possibility of a long-term compromise over the republic’s future status if Moscow ends its military campaign.
By Thomas de Waal

Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov has suggested that he is prepared to reconsider his long-standing demand for independence if Russia ceases its war of aggression against his republic once and for all.

In an interview with IWPR, Maskhadov said that armed resistance by the rebels would continue as a means of “self-preservation” against the Russian army, but that he was seeking a political solution.

Although independence for Chechnya remained his central demand, he said that, if Russia curtailed its military activity in the republic and international guarantees were put in place, he was ready to discuss “any questions” with Moscow.

“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, and if Putin is replaced by Ivanov or Ivanov by Sidorov, or in the case of any political change-over, then we are ready to discuss any questions with the Russian side, including questions of independence,” Maskhadov said.

IWPR sent written questions to Maskhadov in March, via a Chechen intermediary. The interview was recorded in late April in Chechnya, before the death was announced of the Arab warlord Khattab. Maskhadov’s answers, recorded on cassette, were returned to IWPR in London only last week. (For a full text of the interview in English, click here.)

Maskhadov, the Chechen rebels’ chief of staff in the first war with Russia between 1994 and 1996, was elected president of Chechnya in a popular vote in January 1997 that was monitored by the OSCE and recognised by Russia. The leading moderate in the rebel camp, he was even welcomed by President Yeltsin in the Kremlin later that year. However, after beginning a second military campaign against Chechnya in 1999, Moscow said it no longer recognised his legitimacy and appointed its own leader for the republic, Akhmad Kadyrov.

Maskhadov’s presidential term formally expired in January 2001, but he told IWPR that, as far as he was concerned, he was still Chechnya’s leader until new polls could be held. “Until fighting ends and there are conditions, which allow the free expression of will by the people, there can be no elections and elections are not held in these circumstances anywhere in the world,” he said.

“As soon as the fighting stops and the right conditions are created I will be the first with the initiative to hold elections in the republic. I assure you, it would be much more pleasant for me to be an ordinary voter in peaceful Chechnya than the president of a republic at war.

“So, whether the Russian authorities like me or not, to end the war they will have to hold negotiations with the legally elected authorities of Chechnya, headed by President Maskhadov. If they want to keep on repeating that the puppet regime of Kadyrov is the lawful authority in the republic, let them summon him to Moscow and sign any agreement with him on ending the fighting. We’ll see how that works out.”

In a tacit admission that the Chechen rebel fighters, who put up a coordinated armed resistance to the Russians in 1994-6, are now more desperate and dispersed in the second campaign, Maskhadov said that his men were relying on “partisan tactics”.

“The daily losses of Russian forces vary between ten and 50 in men killed alone,” Maskhadov claimed. “There are losses on our side. That is a fact of war. But they are significantly fewer than the enemy’s because we are using partisan tactics and act in small groups and do not allow large numbers of men to be concentrated in one place.”

The Chechen leader said that, with soldiers fearing direct clashes with his fighters, the wrath of the Russian military was falling mainly on Chechen civilians, who were suffering “daily tortures and humiliations”. He described the order, issued by General Vladimir Moltenskoi in late March, to end arbitrary raids on Chechen villagers, as a “propaganda trick”. “Even if General Moltenskoi wanted to, he is incapable of reining in the fighters, who are out of control and long ago forgot what army regulations and order are,” Maskhadov said.

Maskhadov suggested that, were it not for the generals, President Putin might be making a more serious effort to have political negotiations with him. Last year his envoy Akhmed Zakayev had talks with the Russian official Vladimir Kazantsev in Moscow airport, but the discussions yielded no tangible results.

“It has not got beyond general conversation,” said Maskhadov. “The Russian side is too afraid of its generals to have serious concrete discussions with [Zakayev].”

The overall tenor of the Chechen leader’s remarks, weary but defiant, suggests that the positions of the two sides are still very apart. Maskhadov said that, “independence is not a whim or an ambition. It is the necessary condition of our survival as an ethnic group.”

And he ruled out any surrender of Russia’s most wanted men, the Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev and his Saudi-born comrade-in-arms, Khattab (who has been killed since the interview was carried out). While criticising the armed incursion by the two men into Dagestan in 1999, which was one of the triggers for the second conflict, he gave them his broad support.

“As for Basayev and Khattab, they are active participants in the resistance movement and their removal from the game, as you put it, can only weaken overall resistance and not bring the end of the war any closer,” Maskhadov said.

With an estimated eighty thousand Russian troops still in the republic, a continuing small but defiant resistance by the rebels and no real negotiations in process, an end to the suffering certainly looks as far off as ever.

Thomas de Waal is IWPR’s Caucasus Editor. For a full text of this interview including Maskhadov’s comments on Ruslan Gelayev, Russian military tactics and the start of the second war, click here.