As the last week of September began, the Russian media noted that President Vladimir Putin was growing increasingly frustrated over the lack of progress being made by the federal forces against the Chechen separatists. The newspaper Kommersant published an account of a meeting of the Russian power ministers held on September 22 which had been convoked by Putin while he was vacationing in Sochi. “The first point on the agenda,” Kommersant wrote, “was the worsening of the situation in Chechnya. For this, General Patrushev [director of the FSB], who is in charge of the headquarters of the counter-terrorist operation, was held responsible. Vladimir Putin expressed indignation at the fact that the operation in Chechnya was supposedly entering its final phase but that [Russian] losses were not significantly diminishing in numbers or in quality (a reference to the death in Grozny of a group of generals and officers from the General Staff).” Putin then proceeded to demand that the actions of the special services in Chechnya be increased and that the Russian Border Guard Service thwart a threatened incursion by “fresh forces of the rebels from the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia” (Kommersant, September 24).
Two days after this meeting was held in Sochi, on the evening of September 24, Putin made an address over Russian state television (ORT), in which, after discussing the antiterrorist operation in Afghanistan being promoted by the United States, he went on to state concerning the situation in Chechnya: “As we see it, Chechen developments ought not to be regarded outside the context of efforts against international terrorism. True, the Chechen situation has a historical background of its own, and we acknowledge it. As I also acknowledge, there are people in Chechnya to this day who took up arms under the impact of false or misrepresented values.”
And Putin then continued: “That is why I call on all [Chechen separatist] paramilitaries and self-styled political activists urgently to sever whatever contacts [they have] with international terrorists and their organizations; and to contact official spokesmen of federal ruling bodies within seventy-two hours to [discuss] the following: the disarmament procedure of the paramilitary groups and formations, and arrangements to involve them in peacetime developments in Chechnya. On behalf of federal authority, Viktor Kazantsev… has been authorized to effect such contacts.”
Putin concluded his address by noting that he had on the same day attended a conference with leaders of Russian Muslim administrations. “The conference,” he recalled, “was convened on their initiative. They offered to convene in Moscow an international Muslim conference under the motto, ‘Islam against Terror'” (Translation from Gazeta.ru, September 26; Russian original posted on Rosinformtsentr, September 26).
There was, not surprisingly, a great deal of confusion among Russian elites and press commentators, and also among the Chechen separatists, over what precisely Putin had been trying to say. The Russian defense minister, Sergei Ivanov, for his part, chose to underline that the Russian president was offering “a last chance to the bandits.” If they did not lay down their weapons, they would pay a very heavy price. Once the deadline of seventy-two hours had expired, he remarked threateningly, “then if someone [among the separatists] does not choose to hide, I am not at fault” (Trud, September 27).
Writing in the September 26 issue of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, journalist Il’ya Maksakov elected to emphasize another dimension of Putin’s September 24 address: “Far from everyone,” Maksakov wrote, “correctly interpreted the words of the head of state, but those who are ‘in the know,’ all of them, of course, understood it precisely.” One of the first to respond, he noted, had been the pro-Moscow head of the Chechen administration, Akhmad Kadyrov, “who for the first time did not call on Aslan Maskhadov to ‘repent’ and to ‘leave Chechnya for Malaysia,’ but called on him to think it over and ‘not waiting a minute, immediately to find a channel of communication’ to Viktor Kazantsev,” the plenipotentiary Russian presidential representative in the Southern Federal District. Nikolai Britvin, one of Kazantsev’s top deputies, made it quite clear that Putin was in fact speaking about a possible amnesty for many of the separatists (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 26).
The online daily Gazeta.ru reported that, in the opinion of Akhmad Kadyrov, it was precisely Maskhadov and Ruslan Gelaev among the top Chechen separatist leaders “whose hands are less stained with blood that those of other [Chechen] field commanders” (Gazeta.ru, September 25).
After an apparent brief period of uncertainty and hesitation, Aslan Maskhadov decided to interpret Putin’s September 24 statement over state television as constituting a serious overture to the separatists. In an official written response to Putin, Maskhadov observed: “I am convinced that, at the basis of the Russian-Chechen conflict, there lies not terrorism in any of its manifestations but exclusively the historical unresolved state of Russian-Chechen relations. On September 24, Vladimir Putin… made an initiative immediately to begin negotiations with the Chechen Republic. Particularly important is the fact, recognized for the first time by the Russian president, that ‘the events in Chechnya have their own pre-history.’ This assessment confirms that the reason for the war is not a struggle with terrorism but the struggle of the Chechen people for independence. I believe that, in connection with the new proposal of the president of the Russian Federation, there is a real chance to begin negotiations on the speedy halting of military actions and a peaceful resolution of the contradictions that have accumulated over the centuries. On our side, for negotiations… there is designated the deputy chairman of the government of the Chechen Republic, Akhmed Zakaev (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 26).
In an interview with Kommersant, Maskhadov went on to reveal that his representatives had been in contact, both in Chechnya and in Rostov-on-Don, with Vladimir Kazantsev and his colleagues even before Putin’s September 24th statement. “A member of my government [earlier] met with Kazantsev,” he noted, “I authorized him to discuss the conditions for a halt to combat operations and the beginning of negotiations about the future interrelations between Russia and Chechnya. Earlier, deputies of the Chechen parliament met with their Russian colleagues in Nazran [Ingushetia], and recently my representatives met with deputies of the State Duma in Geneva” (Kommersant, September 29).
On September 26, the Chechen deputy premier Maskhadov designated as his chief negotiator, Akhmed Zakaev, pointed out to the Prime News Agency in Tbilisi: “There was no hint of an ultimatum in Putin’s statement. The time for ultimatums has passed. It is not territory in all of its manifestations that forms the basis of the Russian-Chechen conflict; it is solely matters unresolved by history in Russian-Chechen relations. The gulf of alienation between the two peoples can still be bridged; peaceful and good-neighborly relations are a realistic possibility between Russians and Chechens. In this context, we have assessed the Russian president’s recent proposal as a serious step towards beginning talks on peaceful settlement…. This does not mean handing in weapons; it means ceasing military actions in Chechnya, [something] that can only be decided at the negotiating table. There are no intractable issues in our conflict” (Prime News Agency, September 26; English translation by BBC Monitoring Service, September 27).
On September 27, the official designated by President Putin to conduct talks with the separatists, retired General Kazantsev, emphasized to Interfax: “There was no ultimatum on the part of the Russian president. The leaders of Chechen bandit formations and rank and file militants were given seventy-two hours to contact the federal authorities in order to surrender their weapons and embark on a life of peace” (Interfax, September 27). Nikolai Britvin, Kazantsev’s deputy, who was present in the Chechen capital, put it a bit more diplomatically: “The president gave seventy-two hours, not for the bandits’ disarmament, but for [their] establishing contact with the federal forces” (Interfax, September 27). Later on the same day, APN.ru reported that Akhmed Zakaev, “the plenipotentiary representative of Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov,” had arrived at the administrative center of the Southern Federal District in Rostov-on-Don.
To conclude, one must ask whether these new talks will lead to anything. The fact that the two negotiators–Kazantsev and Zakaev–are both high-ranking officials who apparently enjoy the trust of their presidents, plus the fact that Zakaev had the experience of negotiating with the Russian side during the previous 1994-1996 war, provides grounds for cautious optimism, as does the fact that Kazantsev is a retired Russian military general, who is respected by his former colleagues, and who could, perhaps, “sell” the results of a negotiated settlement to more reasonable elements among the Russian military leadership. On the other hand, the situation on the ground in Chechnya has notably worsened, as Russian forces, who had resumed the bombing of Chechnya as early as September 27, launched new military operations over the weekend in response to coordinated attacks by separatists on a series of towns. It seemed difficult at such a moment to foresee a successful negotiated settlement to the worsening conflict.