Despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s uncompromising rhetoric about Chechnya, observers continue to report indications that the Kremlin is keeping alive a back channel for a possible negotiated settlement with Aslan Maskhadov’s separatist government. If Moscow finally comes to accept that the current hard-line approach is a failure, this channel could be the key to peace. One tantalizing indication that this back channel may exist is the increasingly active presence in Moscow of Maskhadov’s official representative to Russia, Salambek Maigov. If the Kremlin were consistently applying hard-line tactics, Maigov would be unable to function; he would be the target of trumped-up criminal charges, analogous to Moscow’s attempt to extradite Akhmed Zakaev from London. Or the Kremlin might simply arrange for him to be untraceably kidnapped or murdered. Instead, he has been allowed to move freely about Moscow, granting interviews to journalists and meeting with Russian VIPs and western diplomats. He even managed to fly to London to meet with Zakaev, whom Moscow accuses of “terrorism,” and later met with officials in the British Foreign Office.
Glen Howard, the Executive Director of the American Committee for Peace in Chechnya, met personally with Maigov during a trip to Moscow last month. The latter said that Maskhadov had been seeking to appoint a representative to Russia since the arrest of his press secretary, Mayrbek Vachirgaev, in Moscow in early 2000. Vachirgaev was thrown into Lefortovo prison and later escaped to France. Maigov has sought to avoid the fate of Vachirgaev, and has finally managed to convince some in the Kremlin’s circle to permit him to fill that role of representative. His success has come, Maigov said, thanks to the influence of highly-placed Russians with ties to the Yeltsin administration.
In Maigov’s view, so far the Kremlin “hawks”–those who planned March’s phony constitutional referendum and who refuse to make any concessions to Maskhadov–are still the dominant influence on Putin’s thinking about Chechnya. In this camp he includes Kremlin chief of staff Aleksandr Voloshin, Putin’s “spin doctor,” Sergei Yastrzhembsky, and the half-Chechen deputy chief of staff, Vladislav Surkov. All three are eager to show Putin (and the public) that the referendum strategy is working and that the war is genuinely drawing to a victorious close. According to Maigov, some of the VIPs outside the Kremlin staff who have Putin’s ear are privately more skeptical, but so far they fear to speak out openly against the hard-liners.
Maigov told Howard that he has been interrogated by the Federal Security Service (FSB) on three separate occasions, but has nevertheless been able to continue operating openly as Maskhadov’s representative. Officials from both the British and German embassies have contacted him, moreover; the mysterious appointment of Maigov has aroused interest in Moscow’s foreign diplomatic community. According to Maigov, no American official has contacted him since his appointment by President Maskhadov. This is despite his frequent interviews on Russian radio (Ekho Moskvy) and a live Russian television debate hosted by the prominent television journalist Savik Shuster.