Publication: Prism Volume: 7 Issue: 12

By Nabi Abdullaev

Little has changed in Chechnya since the November 18 meeting between Akhmed Zakaev, the Chechen rebels’ representative, and Viktor Kazantsev, President Vladimir Putin’s envoy in the Southern federal district and the Kremlin’s representative for the negotiations with the rebels, at least in terms of halting the fighting in the breakaway republic. Indeed, while Zakaev publicly characterized his meeting with Kazantsev, which took place in the VIP lounge of Moscow’s Sheremet’evo airport, as a breakthrough, the meeting only seemed to reinforce the Russian side’s doubts about the possibilities to bringing the issues that were discussed–how to reach a ceasefire and start the process of rebuilding Chechnya’s civilian life–to fruition.

There was good reason for pessimism over the meeting. First, Moscow and the separatists had different views about the terms and substance of the talks. Zakaev reportedly refused to discuss the disarmament issue that the federal government considered the top priority. However, a important reason for pessimism, Chechnya experts say, is the lack of a single center of power among the rebels, which is bound to undermine the significance of any negotiations. “Many political groups, including Russian troops, hold power in Chechnya, but no one is strong enough to give any guarantees [that agreements will be implemented],” said Timur Muzaev, an expert with the Moscow-based Panorama think-tank.

Experts agreed that while the bulk of rebels act on their own, the organized separatists could be divided into three basic groups, each with its own leadership. Maskhadov, the Chechen president who was elected to a five-year term in February 1997, leads those rebels who see Chechnya’s future as an independent state based on ethnicity rather than Islamic fundamentalism. Maskhadov’s forces are strongest in southwestern Chechnya, but, according to some observers, his control over other rebel leaders is very limited. “In contemporary Chechnya, where a leader’s political influence is measured by the number of guns brandished by his supporters, Maskhadov is just an ordinary warlord and not the most powerful one,” said Aleksandr Iskandaryan, head of Moscow’s Center of Caucasian Studies.

Although Maskhadov cannot give direct orders to other prominent rebel leaders, experts believe he can influence them to some extent, since he is the one who gives the rebels’ cause an air of legitimacy. “Without Maskhadov, the other rebels would seem to many to be ordinary terrorists, and this could severely reduce political support for them outside Russia,” said Muzaev.

But Iskandaryan warned that Maskhadov’s significance should not be overestimated. “What will happen to the warlord Shamil Basaev if Maskhadov leaves the rebels?” he asked rhetorically. “Obviously, nothing.”

Naturally, Maskhadov is unlikely to acknowledge his inability to control the entire rebel force, said Shamil Beno, a former representative of Kremlin-appointed Chechen leader Akhmad Kadyrov. “It would be unwise of him, as it would undermine his political status,” he said, adding that formally Maskhadov commands the other rebels as head of their General Staff.

The second group–the largest and the most active one–is led by Basaev and his Arab lieutenant Khattab, whose stated goal is Chechen independence coupled with radical Islam. This group, which regularly challenges the Russians’ formal control over southern and southeastern Chechnya with deadly booby traps and ambushes, gets financial support and fighters from radical Muslims worldwide, but has failed to win broad public support in Chechnya. “Last year, Kadyrov’s Moscow office held a poll among refugees in Chechnya and Ingushetia that showed that ordinary Chechens feel most negative toward federal troops and Khattab’s Wahhabis,” said Beno, referring to the radical followers of the austere Saudi brand of Islam. “The people want foreign fighters out of Chechnya.”

The third group, led by Ruslan Gelaev, seceded from the common cause in the summer of 2000 after Gelaev had a personal conflict with Maskhadov. This group, which settled in neighboring Georgia, includes people who cannot articulate any ideological basis for fighting. “They took up arms simply in response to an attack by outsiders,” said Beno, who also served as foreign minister under the first post-Soviet president of Chechnya, Djohar Dudaev. According to Iskandaryan, the drawn-out conflict has demoralized Gelaev’s fighters.

Although the experts were pessimistic that talks would help resolve the region’s political and military stalemate or improve the lives of ordinary Chechens, they said both sides could reap certain political benefits from a semblance of rapprochement.

For the Kremlin, public attempts to meet the rebels halfway would allow President Vladimir Putin to capitalize on the West’s new willingness to be less critical of the war in Chechnya in light of Moscow’s support for the military campaign in Afghanistan and the general mood created by the international war on terrorism. “Russia is formally demonstrating the maturity and wisdom of its political regime,” said Shamil Beno. “But by presenting Maskhadov with such unacceptable preconditions as disarmament, the federal authorities have precluded any viable prospects that could come out of the talks.”

Both Beno and Muzaev pointed out that Maskhadov also stands to gain from talks with Moscow, as they could reinforce his legitimacy as the popularly elected president. Beno speculated that one reason Maskhadov’s envoy Akhmed Zakaev insisted on a meeting in Moscow was to create the impression of state-to-state talks, rather than negotiations between Russia and a fractious group from one of its constituent territories. “Maskhadov’s rating will rise as he talks about peace,” said Muzaev. “He is in a position to talk about anything now, since he will not bear responsibility if he fails to guarantee [the implementation of] any accords.”

According to Muzaev, Putin’s position is less enviable, since the president must bolster his reputation as a man of his word. While the dual threat of military exhaustion and antiwar sentiment necessitates the search for a political solution, Putin is as powerless as anyone else to ensure that agreements are carried out. “For him, negotiations are essential and impossible at the same time,” said Muzaev.

The main problem, experts agree, lies in the fragmented nature of the Chechen resistance to Russian rule. “Unlike the first Chechen conflict, when Dudaev controlled the vertical structure of power, now the rebel resistance has formed a web-like structure, which is better for quicker, operative responses,” said Iskandaryan.

But this tactical military advantage has previously proved an obstacle to political settlement. “Russia’s expectations that rebel resistance would slacken after Dudaev’s death in 1996 were erroneous,” said Muzaev, who was an adviser to the Chechen government in 1995-97. “On the contrary, it increased in intensity as power was dispersed among warlords striving for combat glory.”

Today, experts say, the number of uncontrolled armed groups has grown dramatically and even their approximate manpower is impossible to estimate. “It can be compared to a set of concentric circles,” said Iskandaryan. “There is a small number of guerrillas who fight on a regular basis; they are followed by those who come home to rest and pretend to be civilians for that period; then come those who join the rebels just for certain military operations.”

Muzaev linked the ebb and tide of rebel activity to atrocities by Russian troops. “Whenever federal soldiers conduct fierce mopping-up operations among civilians, public support for the rebels rises and many locals join them for retaliatory operations,” he said.

As the conflict drags on, the fighting in Chechnya becomes more chaotic and tactical solutions dominate over strategic ones. “Now that the sides have failed to come to any political settlement, the number of secret military and business accords between Russian medium-rank officers and mid-level warlords is rising,” said Beno, referring to illegal arms and oil trade. Such deals, he added, only fuel the spread of violence in the region. “More Chechens are entering the fight–not because they strive for independence or anything else, but because, being immersed in violence, they cannot escape this choice,” said Iskandaryan. “Thus the war gains its own logic and breaks loose from the control of those who launched it.”

Nabi Abdullaev is a journalist based in Makhachkala, Dagestan.