In early 1996, Boris Nemtsov, the then young governor of Nizhny Novgorod Oblast, significantly advanced the prospects for peace during the first (1994-1996) Russo-Chechen war when he collected a million signatures from residents of his region pleading for an end to the conflict. On December 23, Nemtsov, now the leader of the Union of Right Forces faction in the State Duma, inserted himself into the debate over how to end the current war when he headed a group of deputies from his faction and from the Yabloko faction who met in Nazran, Ingushetia with seven members of the Chechen legislature elected in early 1997. [For a description of this election, see Timur Muzaev, Chechensky krizis-99, Moscow, 1999.]
Accompanying Nemtsov to Nazran was retired MVD General Aslambek Aslakhanov, recently elected to the Russian State Duma from Chechnya, as well as former Russian Justice Minister Pavel Krashennikov and Russia’s former human rights commissioner Sergei Kovalev (both deputies from the URF faction). Another member of the group was Oleg Morozov, head of the Duma’s Russian Regions faction. In a significant development, President Aslan Maskhadov, titular leader of the Chechen separatists, sent an experienced negotiator, Khozh-Akhmed Yarikhanov, to head the Chechen delegation (AP and UPI, December 24; Gazeta.ru, December 28). Following what appeared to be a fruitful discussion, the two delegations signed a five-point protocol, which Nemtsov described as “a basis for a negotiated settlement to the conflict” (RFERL, December 27). The issue of Chechnya’s sovereignty, according to General Aslakhanov, was not raised at the meeting.
The five points of the protocol: (1) “an official rejection by Moscow of the Leninist principle of the right of national self-determination; (2) the appointment of a governor-general who would be responsible for both civic and economic problems and the military and security sphere in Chechnya; (3) talks with Chechen fighters aimed at ending hostilities; (4) the abolition of the institution of the presidency in Chechnya; and (5) the repatriation of and assistance to internally displaced persons” (RFERL, December 29).
According to Nemtsov, this new five-point plan should be given three to five years to be implemented. If it should fail to end the partisan war, then Chechnya, Nemtsov asserted, should be partitioned, with the northern part of the republic (that is, the Naursky, Shelkovsky and, perhaps, the Nadterechny districts) being removed from Chechnya and attached to Stavropol Krai. A strict border regime manned by professional border guards would be set up to protect Russia from southern Chechnya. These steps, of course, are consonant with the “Emil’ Pain plan” to end the conflict (see Chechnya Weekly, November 29, December 11).
Another point Nemtsov underlined is that, as a fighting force, Russia’s army in the region is falling apart. “When troops stand still,” he warned, “they are getting increasingly demoralized. They are plagued by alcoholism, drug-addiction, prostitution and looting” (Associated Press, December 28).
Reaction to Nemtsov’s proposals in Russia was mixed. Following the December 23 meeting, Gazeta.ru reported, “for two days Nemtsov took up residence on [Russian] television, where he gave one interview after another,” explaining that to continue the war further was “senseless” and that, under certain conditions, something like a new “Khasavyurt Accord” (a reference to the late August 1996 agreement which ended the first war) might be signed with Maskhadov (Gazeta.ru, December 28). For such assertions, Nemtsov received what Gazeta.ru termed a “slap in the face” from presidential spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky, who noted that the Russian government had not given him a mandate to conduct negotiations. President Putin’s official human rights spokesman for Chechnya, Vladimir Kalamanov, called Nemtsov’s actions “a stab in the back” (RFERL, December 27, 29).
What was Vladimir Putin’s reaction? On December 26, following a meeting with the heads of Duma factions, Putin asked Nemtsov to remain behind for a chat. According to Nemtsov, Putin then gave him a half an hour to summarize his ideas after which he opined that “on the whole he liked the plan” (Gazeta.ru, December 28). What Putin really thought of the Nemtsov plan became somewhat clearer during the course of a lengthy interview which he gave to ORT, RTR and the newspaper Nezavisimaya gazeta (a transcript of the interview appeared in the daily’s December 26 issue).
During the interview, Putin refrained from criticizing any of the actions of the Russian military and MVD in Chechnya, crediting them, instead, with “resolving an enormous number of tasks normally not even handled by an army.” The key to the situation, Putin made clear, lay with the Chechen people itself: “It is necessary, finally, that the Chechen people should become aware of, should understand and should support the actions which Russia is taking to restore the vital activity of this region of Russia…. I assure you that many members of Chechen society, many Chechen citizens, feel themselves deceived by the rebels.” (Putin adduced no polling data to support this claim.)
The Russian president appeared disinclined to endorse Nemtsov’s idea of appointing a governor-general for Chechnya. “I want that there should no doubts,” he declared, “We have only one center of power in Chechnya-Akhmad Kadyrov. He has been appointed by the president of Russia and will carry out his obligations until such time as we arrive at other means of resolving political questions, namely, to an election of the leader of the republic.”
Asked specifically about the recent Nazran meeting, Putin stated: “I relate negatively to contacts with representatives of the rebels. But with representatives of Chechen society it is a different matter.” On the specific issue of negotiations with Maskhadov and his representatives, Putin said: “The president of Chechnya was elected in violation of the Constitution of the Russian Federation, and he is not therefore legitimate for us. But even if you consider Maskhadov the president, his presidential term expires in January .” (Putin passed over in silence the fact that President Yeltsin had sent Maskhadov an official message of congratulations upon his election in January 1997 and had directed his national security advisor to attend Maskhadov’s inauguration.)
And Putin continued: “If someone wants to conduct negotiations with [Maskhadov], we will not interfere, but I consider that this is not a productive way to resolve matters.” Asked directly how “dangerous” it was “to conduct negotiations behind the back of the army,” Putin remarked: “I don’t think that this will inflict significant harm on the moral condition of the troops. Everyone in the troops knows that the final decision rests with the president, with me.” Then, to ensure that the troops properly understood his message, he added: “And I have a firm conviction: Everyone who bears arms must be turned over to a court”–that is, all Chechen rebels should be captured and put on trial. There should be no amnesty.
To conclude, the Nemtsov initiative, like his earlier 1996 effort, could represent an important signal that significant elements of Russian society–and especially the pro-democracy, pro-market Union of Right Forces and Russian Regions factions within the parliament and their millions of supporters–believe that the war in Chechnya has reached a dead-end and that, objectively, to go on with the conflict contradicts the state interests of the Russian Republic. A negotiated settlement with Chechen separatists–and not with pro-Moscow quislings-is seen as the only realistic path to bring an end to the war.
The specific five-point plan Nemtsov adumbrated is clearly seen as tentative and provisional, subject to change. In a sense, it can be viewed as a return to elements of the August 1996 Khasavyurt Accords. Russia is to be given a “grace period”-three to five years-to show that it can restore peace and a functioning infrastructure and economy to Chechnya. (March of the year 2004 will, it should be noted, witness the holding of new presidential elections in Russia.)
Realistically speaking, there seems little chance that such a “grace period” could produce positive results. The Russian military, FSB and MVD are unlikely to halt their brutal treatment of the civilian populace; more likely, they will want to take added revenge for the “rebellions” of 1994-1996 and 1999-2001. Faced with such a situation, the separatists will fight on. The only realistic part of the Nemtsov plan, therefore, may be its “fall-back” stipulation that after three-to-five years (or perhaps earlier) Moscow will decide to withdraw its forces to the Terek River and at that point set up a strict border regime. In our opinion, this “fall-back” plan has all along represented the only realistic solution to the conflict, especially given the intransigent, “hawkish” views of the Russian president and of leading elements among the military.
The year 2001, like the year 1996 before it, is likely to witness the surfacing of a number of plans to end the conflict. In mid-December, it was reported that the controversial Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky “had begun talking to Chechens last month [that is, in November] after previously suspending contact at the request of President Vladimir Putin.” Berezovsky contended that Russian forces should have stopped their advance into Chechnya in late 1999 at the Terek River and should not have penetrated further. He also argued that Maskhadov “remained the most logical interlocutor, and that talks were also necessary between the government and other fighters including Shamil Basaev.” Berezovsky stated flatly, “There is no point talking to Chechens loyal to the Russian regime” (Financial Times, December 18).
In similar fashion, retired General Aleksandr Lebed, the elected governor of Krasnoyarsk Krai, and the person who, as the secretary of Yeltsin’s security council, negotiated the 1996 Khasavyurt Accords with Maskhadov, observed on December 19: “We need a political settlement. You must hold talks with those in authority. There is no point having partners who cannot take decisions.” Lebed predicted that “a military approach to the conflict could never be successful,” and advocated the opening of talks with President Maskhadov (but not with Shamil Basaev and Khattab, who, he said, should be “shot”). Lebed, however, remained pessimistic, holding that a short-term resolution to the conflict was unlikely. Instead, he “predicted an escalation in the conflict over coming months” (Financial Times, December 19). This prophecy may well turn out to be true.