Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 3 Issue: 6

The no. 4 (January 31) issue of the magazine Itogi contains a piece by correspondent Oleg Odnokolenko which reports that “circles of experts close to the [Russian] government and presidential administration” are thinking of recommending that a Russia-wide referendum be conducted on the question of Chechnya. “The citizens [of Russia],” Odnokolenko writes, “will be offered the possibility of choosing one of three variants: (a) the continuation of the counterterrorist operation, (2) the exclusion of Chechnya from the Russian Federation and (c) a partition of the republic into two parts–social problems would be actively resolved in the peaceful half and the economy would be restored thee, while, in the remaining half, military actions would be continued.”

Each of these variants, Odnokolenko remarks, “has its adherents and opponents.” Those who want to continue the counterterrorist operation throughout the territory of Chechnya contend that “Vladimir Putin has no other choice, inasmuch as he has declared himself to be an implacable opponent of terrorism. A repudiation of this would signify that Russia, in spite of the facts, does not believe that Khattab and Basaev are proteges of al-Qaida. The authority of the regime, in the opinion of the supporters of the force variant, would also suffer inside the country if the promise to bring about order in Chechnya is not carried out.” On the whole, these pro-war analysts argue, “Russians [rossiyane] support precisely the force variant.”

As opposed to the pro-force experts, Odnokolenko continues, “there are among the experts a significant number who consider a withdrawal of Russia from Chechnya to be a very productive variant. In their opinion, the [Chechen] republic is already a territory with a special status.” While it is true that a number of Chechens freely cross the border into “continental” Russia to engage in extensive business dealings there, the fact remains that in Russia “the attitude toward them, on an everyday level is, to put in mildly, extremely wary.”

“More and more often,” Odnokolenko writes, “one hears the opinion that the territory of Chechnya represents no great value for Russia–neither its limited (on the Russian scale) oil reserves nor its agricultural production are worth the blood of Russian soldiers or economic losses. The most radical representatives of this point of view believe that to bring the Chechen nation out of the Middle Ages–where it finds itself due to its previous leaders who implanted Wahhabism and due to the many-years-long war–is impossible, and it does not make sense even to try. All the more so if the Chechens themselves actively do not want it and resist it with weapons in their hands.”

The third variant, the one that Odnokolenko himself seems to prefer, involves “a partition of Chechnya into a peaceful and nonpeaceful part.” The idea of partitioning Chechnya, he notes, has been around since the fall of 1999, when there was a plan to halt the Russian troops at the Terek River. The realization of such a plan for partition “would involve not a few expenditures,” for example, the equipping and manning of the border between the two Chechnyas. “However,” Odnokolenko proceeds to observe, “in the peaceful territory one would be able to organize a normal life, in the first instance for those many thousands of [Chechen] inhabitants who are presently freezing on the territory of Ingushetia. As long as the refugees find themselves in camps which are little suited for existence they will remain a social base on which the implacable separatists can rely. A forced transfer, even on the scale of a national territory [that is, of Chechnya], is inadmissible–everyone understands that. Refugees who have little trust in anyone must become convinced that it is better to live on the territory of Chechnya, where the authorities can guarantee security and provide extensive aid, rather than to continue camp life. If this proves successful, then in Chechnya there can, in reality, appear territories where the necessity of conducting mopping up operations ceases and where trust in the federal authorities and in Russia in general is restored.”

On such sensitive subjects as population transfers, Odnokolenko observes, consultations must be conducted with representatives of the local pro-Moscow administration, with village elders, and with the refugees themselves but “not with various representatives of [Aslan] Maskhadov who sometimes make an appearance even at the Council of Europe.” “The Kremlin,” Odnokolenko notes, “is not, it would seem, planning to come to agreement with the separatists.”

Since there exists no “easy variant” for resolving the Chechen problem, Odnokolenko concludes his essay, “the idea of conducting a Russia-wide referendum on Chechnya looks completely justified from a political perspective.” The need to undertake such a referendum is becoming increasingly obvious. The war is creating “serious problems” for the Russian economy, while the continuation of the conflict renders the conducting of serious and much-needed military reform in Russia impossible. Finally, “the popularity of the idea of revenge for Khasavyurt has sharply diminished in [Russian] society itself: the autumn call-up showed that fewer and fewer [young men] desire to die for the institution of constitutional order in a North Caucasus republic.”

To sum up, Odnokolenko’s piece offers a useful window on the thinking of expert circles advising the Russian presidential administration and the Russian government. It is unclear whether President Putin himself, as opposed to the presidential administration headed by chief-of-staff Aleksandr Voloshin, has any real interest in the second and third variants that Odnokolenko discussed. As far as can be detected, Putin today remains a firm supporter of variant number one.