Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 5

Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov called again yesterday for negotiations with Moscow to end the conflict in the breakaway republic, which has been going on for almost a year and a half. Maskhadov said that the crisis in the North Caucasus would not end unless there were negotiations–without preconditions–between him and the Russian leadership. The Chechen leader made his appeal in a 40-minute address on the underground “Free Chechnya” radio station, during which he also named Chechen politicians and rebel field commander, who he said shared blame for the current conflict. Russian agencies, however, did not list those names (Russian agencies, January 7).

Maskhadov’s radio address capped a particularly violent week in Chechnya’s ongoing insurgent war. Khasmagomed Umalatov, imam of the republic’s Urus-Martan region, died on January 6 after being shot seven times at his home by someone using a Makarov pistol. Russian military officials were quoted as saying that Chechen rebels carried out the attack as a way of intimidating the local population. A Russian television channel described Umalatov as both having been actively involved in “peacemaking activities” and one of Urus-Martan’s most respected residents. In June of last year, Umalatov’s predecessor as the region’s imam, Umar Idrisov, was also killed by unknown gunmen (NTV, Russian agencies, January 7). The Chechen rebels have increasingly been targeting Chechens whom they accuse of collaborating with the “occupiers”–that is, the federal forces. Indeed, Akhmad Kadyrov, the head of Chechnya’s provisional administration and its former chief mufti, was reportedly the target of an assassination attempt last week. On January 4, a bomb was said to have off as a motorcade in which Kadyrov was traveling between Bachi-Yurt and Tsentoro, the village of Kadyrov’s birth. Kadyrov was not hurt in the blast. Afterwards, however, members of the motorcade exchanged fire with the rebels who had detonated the bomb, killing two of them (Russian agencies, January 5).

The rebels had greater success with ambushes over the weekend. On January 6, they carried out an attack on a convoy passing through the Oktyabr region of Djohar [Grozny], the Chechen capital, as it traveled from the military base at Khankala along the Djohar-Argun highway. A car in the convoy–which included armored personnel carriers and was accompanied by helicopters–was hit by rocket propelled grenades, killing three members of an OMON special police unit from the Siberian town of Tyva (Russian agencies, January 7). The previous day, an automobile traveling in the Chechen capital with members of a police unit from the city of Novgorod was blown up by a radio-controlled bomb. One policeman was killed and three wounded. Also on January 5, the Russian military reported that four of its servicemen were wounded when an explosive device attached to a parked motorcycle was detonated as a car ferrying the troops drove past it. The report did not indicate exactly where the incident took place. On the same day, two Chechen policemen, a father and son, were murdered by unknown gunmen in their home in the town of Gudermes. Kadyrov called the murders a terrorist act carried out by the rebels and also put blame on the policemen’s neighbors, some of whom, he said, must have seen the attackers arriving at or leaving the scene of the crime. The same day, three policemen were slightly wounded in the town of Vedeno when a bomb went off 60 meters from the local Interior Ministry headquarters (Russian agencies, January 5-6).

While the violence in Chechnya continues unabated, it should be noted that Maskhadov’s new call for negotiations corresponded with a new round of rumors that Moscow may be looking for a way out of the war. Last month, Boris Nemtsov, head of the Union of Right-Wing Forces’ faction in the State Duma, led a delegation of Duma members who met in Ingushetia with certain members of Chechnya’s parliament as it existed in 1997 and signed a protocol calling for the start of a political solution to the Chechen conflict, including negotiations with the republic’s parliament and president, meaning Maskhadov, and elections for a “governor-general” for the breakaway republic. Sergei Yastrzhembsky, however, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman on the Chechen conflict, subsequently denied that the Kremlin had given Nemtsov’s delegation any authority to negotiate on its behalf. Yastrzhembsky said that the federal Center’s position toward the Chechen rebels remained as before–that the rebel leaders should either be brought to trial or killed. However, even in the wake of Yaztrzhembsky’s comments, Nemtsov continued to insist that Putin had given his approval both for the talks between the Russian and Chechen parliamentarians and for their plan for a political solution to the conflict (Russian agencies, December 24-25, 28).

Even if Putin is sending up trial balloons for both a possible political settlement to the Chechen conflict and negotiations with Maskhadov, it is not clear that Maskhadov would be able to enforce it on the Chechen side. In an interview broadcast by an independent Georgian television station, Shamil Basaev, the infamous field commander and Maskhadov foe vowed to fight to the end and claimed that he and the other rebel field commanders were now united with Maskhadov. “We have changed our tactics,” Basaev told the station. “We do not have a single front line. We are everywhere, and at the same time nowhere. At the beginning of last year there was some disagreement in the [rebel] leadership, but it is now overcome. The government and president of Ichkeria are united as never before. The war can continue for 100 years, but we will fight to the end.” Basaev, who had a foot amputated after stepping on a mine while escaping last year’s onslaught by federal forces on the Chechen capital, is reportedly now hiding in the republic’s mountains (Radio Liberty, January 6). Maskhadov has previously accused radical rebel field commanders like Basaev and Khattab of provoking the current conflict by leading the 1999 armed raid into Dagestan. Further, judging by the Chechen president’s latest statements, it is far from clear that the discord on the Chechen side has been overcome, despite Basaev’s claims to the contrary. Whatever the case, the ongoing wave of hit-and-run and terrorist attacks on the federal forces and their Chechen allies suggests that whatever discord exists within the rebel ranks, it is not preventing them from conducting effective guerrilla warfare.