Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov’s ceasefire order has forced the Russian authorities to change their information policy. Almost immediately after the news of the ceasefire order was made public, security officials who usually insist that there has been no war in Chechnya for a long time started telling the press a new story. Vladimir Bulgakov, the Russian Ground Troops Deputy Commander, told Gazeta.ru on February 3 that the rebels “ambush our columns and attack our checkpoints almost every day.”
Meanwhile, Maskhadov’s London-based envoy, Ahmed Zakaev, said that another objective of the ceasefire order was to give an olive branch to anti-war forces in Russia. Since the start of the second Chechen war, rebels have been trying to find partners in Russia with whom they could cooperate in search for a peaceful solution of the conflict. In 1999-2000, Maskhadov tried to use Georgian Chechens (Kistins) working in his staff to establish ties with Russian politicians with a Georgian background. However, both Yevgeny Primakov, who was born in the Georgian capital of Tbilisi and was one of the most influent Russian political leaders of that time, and Igor Ivanov, the former foreign minister and current Security Council secretary who was born in Pankisi Gorge, refused to have anything to do with Maskhadov’s envoys. Ivan Rybkin, the leader of the so-called “Party of Peace” during the first Chechen war, was ready to help but had by that time almost completely lost his influence.
Having failed with politicians, Maskhadov’s people tried to get in touch with the business community. However, an aide to Anatoly Chubais, head of the Russian state-owned power grid, Unified Energy Systems (UES), also refused to deal with the Chechens (see Grani.ru, August 16, 2001).
Getting no response from the Russian elite, the rebels began to appeal to the Russian public. The Kavkazcenter website started publishing articles by Russian journalists who sympathized with the rebels’ struggle for independence, while Akhmed Zakaev, Umar Khambiev and other separatist emissaries met in Europe with some independent Russian journalists and NGO leaders like Anna Politkovskaya and Andrei Mironov. Finally, in late 2004, the Soldier’s Mothers Committee agreed to talk to Zakaev in Belgium. Belgian authorities, however, refused to give visas to the committee’s representatives, and would not give Ahmed Zakaev permission to enter the country. It was clear that the government of Belgium had nothing against these peace talks but was forced to stop them under strong pressure from the Kremlin.
While the Chechens are desperately looking for somebody in Russia with whom they could talk about peace, Russian authorities are doing exactly the opposite – blocking all peace initiatives coming from the public. Occasionally, President Vladimir Putin threatens human rights and anti-war activists, branding all those who are in favor of talks with Maskhadov “terrorist accessories.” But Russian authorities fully practice what they preach, suppressing Chechen NGOs and quelling protests against the war. Last year, Fatima Gazieva, a member of The Echo of War, a Chechen peace-building organization, was detained by Chechen police and Federal Security Service (FSB) officers in Chechnya under the pretext that she was allegedly recruiting women to become suicide bombers (see Prague Watchdog, September 3, 2004). After massive protests from the international human-rights community, security agencies were forced to release her. At the same time, in Ingushetia, the local prosecutor’s office accused the Chechnya Committee of National Salvation of organizing “propaganda of extremism” by disseminating press-releases on human rights violations in Chechnya (see Civitas.ru, October 25, 2004). Libhan Bazaeva, a leader of the Ingushetian branch of the Memorial human rights center, had to leave Russia for Germany after receiving several threats from the FSB. Imran Ezhiev, a leader of the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, also left Russia after several arrests, kidnappings and assassination attempts.
However, the repression is not confined only to the North Caucasus region. Last February 23, Moscow authorities banned a rally against the war in Chechnya on Lubyanka Square. The site of the rally was surrounded by special police officers, and two leaders of the protest, Oleg Khramov and Lev Ponomarev, were detained. The authorities also banned an anti-war picket on March 11, 2004. Those who took part in the picket were arrested that day.
Activists of peace-building organizations, who are traditionally more cautious and usually do not sharply criticize the Kremlin’s policy toward Chechnya, have had problems in their work as well. Last March, the Russian Embassy in London refused to grant a Russian visa to Lord Judd, the former rapporteur of the European Parliament on Chechnya. The Yalta Initiative for Peace in Chechnya, a coalition of peace-building organizations, had invited him to visit Moscow. He was to award peace prizes for peace-building activities in the North Caucasus.
The year 2005 started with much harsher measures against some activists of the anti-war movement. The Nizhny Novgorod regional prosecutor’s office launched a criminal case against a newspaper published by the Russian Chechen Friendship Society under Article 280 of the Russian Criminal Code, which prohibits “calls for forcible change of the Russian Federation’s constitutional system.” The FSB questioned Stanislav Dmitrievsky, chief editor of the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society’s Information Center, about two appeals by Aslan Maskhadov and Ahmed Zakaev that had been published in the newspaper (see Chechnya Weekly, January 26). The FSB also questioned everyone who works in or used to work in the organization. Furthermore, officers confiscated the list of Society members working in Chechnya as correspondents for its Information Center (see RCFS, press-release # 1133, February 3).
On January 20, police in Moscow detained Pavel Luzakov, the editor-in-chief of a semi-underground newspaper called Svobodnoe slovo. Luzakov is famous for his article published on the Kavkazcenter website in which he called the Russian troops fighting in Chechnya “occupiers” and accused Vladimir Putin of “genocide of the Chechen nation” (see Prima-news.ru, January 21).
The Russian government’s pressure on the anti-war movement shows that the Kremlin is not interested in a real peace process. Human rights activists and peace-builders can only rely on the support of the Russian public and the opposite side in the conflict. Commenting on the interview with Aslan Maskhadov published in Kommersant on February 7, Lev Ponomarev, a leader of the Russian human rights community, said “one could expect that Vladimir Putin would not pay any attention to the words of Maskhadov, but our task is to find a form of public support in Russia for Maskhadov’s statement” (See Newsru.com, February 7). Anti-war activists believe that public support of the rebels’ initiative would strengthen the position of those people around Putin who believe that it is time to end the Chechen war. One can only guess who those people are, but some analysts, like Aleksei Malashenko of the Carnegie Center, believe they do exist.