Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 213

Talks between the Russian government and the Chechen rebels began yesterday, when Akhmed Zakaev, a representative of rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov, met with Viktor Kazantsev, President Vladimir Putin’s representative to the Southern federal district. The meeting took place at Moscow’s Sheremetevo Airport, at which Zakaev had arrived from Turkey, and lasted more than three hours. A source in Kazantsev’s office was quoted as saying that the talks were “warm and informal” but were held in strict secrecy at the airport because of security concerns. Kazantsev himself said that the “conversation was constructive and will be continued.” But he added that he would talk about the details of the meeting only after conducting a “more detailed analysis.” He did say, however, that the meeting “went exclusively along the lines of the recent statement by President Vladimir Putin concerning Chechnya.” (This was an apparent reference to Putin’s September 24 demarche, in which the president gave the rebels seventy-two hours to appear before federal officials to discuss procedures for disarming and reintegrating into civilian life.) Kazantsev’s adviser, Maxim Fedorenko, also said that Kazantsev and Putin discussed precisely those issues.

Zakaev was accompanied by Besim Tibuk, head of Turkey’s small Liberal Democratic Party. Tibuk, who is also a well-known businessman in Turkey, was not, however, serving as mediator. Moscow has ruled out the idea of foreign mediators for the talks. On this point, presidential aide Sergei Yastrzhembsky once again reiterated the fact that “the Chechen problem is strictly a Russian internal matter, and we have quite enough strength and political will to solve it on our own” (Vremya Novostei, Moscow Times, November 19). Prior to leaving Turkey for the talks, Zakaev said that while the Chechen side had not changed its mind about the need for international mediators, it had nonetheless agreed to yesterday’s meeting out of a sense of “responsibility for the Chechen people, who are experiencing great suffering and under the threat of physical destruction” (Kavkaz.org, November 19).

Upon returning to Turkey, Zakaev told the pro-Maskhadov news agency Chechenpress that his meeting with Kazantsev had been constructive and that the two had exchanged opinions on ways to end the conflict in Chechnya. He was quoted as saying that Maskhadov was ready to resolve all disagreements at the negotiating table and that further steps in resolving the Chechen conflict would depend on the position of the Russian leadership. Separately, Chechenpress commented optimistically on yesterday’s meeting, saying that it “finally allows all of us to hope for a peaceful outcome to the protracted Russian-Chechen war” and noting the “respectful” way in which Kazantsev and his aides had described the meeting with Zakaev (Chechenpress, November 19). Interestingly, unlike Chechenpress, Kavkaz.org, the Qatar-based website that supports the more radical, Islamist elements within the Chechen rebel ranks, quoted Zakaev as insisting–upon his arrival in Turkey after the talks–that the issue of “the disarmament of the Chechen armed forces” had not been “on the agenda” (Kavkaz.org, November 19).

A number of leading Russian politicians welcomed the Kazantsev-Zakaev meeting, among them Boris Nemtsov, leader of the Union of Right-Wing Forces (SPS) faction in the State Duma, and Gennady Zyuganov, leader of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF). “Dialogue is always better than war,” Zyuganov said. “All the more given that apparently no one–neither the federal forces nor those of Maskhadov–controls the situation in Chechnya.” Vyacheslav Volodin, head of the Fatherland-All Russian faction in the Duma, praised the Kremlin for taking the “correct steps in resolving the protracted Chechen conflict.” Aleksandr Gurov, chairman of the Duma’s committee on security, was less enthusiastic: Talks were needed, he said, but “on the political level” Russia “as before does not see a subject for negotiations” and thus “the role of the negotiations between Kazantsev and Zakaev” remains “altogether unclear.” He also said that the talks will be concerned with little else besides rebel disarmament, given that “after September 11 all attempts by the Chechen fighters to attract the attention of world society have lost their meaning.” All that is left for the rebels to do, he continued, is to disarm and to throw foreign “mercenaries” out of Chechnya. Meanwhile, Aslambek Aslakhanov, a State Duma deputy representing Chechnya, welcomed the Kazantsev-Zakaev meeting, but added that there were few supporters for such talks within either the Russian military or the ranks of the Chechen rebels (Vremya Novostei, November 19; NTV.ru, November 18).

The first to condemn yesterday’s meeting, however, were from neither the ranks of the Russian military nor the Chechen rebels, but from among pro-Moscow Chechens. Salam Dauev, head of the Nokchimokhk political movement, warned that talks with the rebels would simply mark “a return to 1996,” when talks between the federal forces and the rebels, as Dauev and other opponents of talks see it, simply allowed the rebels to regroup militarily. Another stalwart opponent of negotiations, Akhmad Kadyrov, head of Chechnya’s pro-Moscow administration, rushed to Moscow today–perhaps, as one observer put it, “to learn first-hand something about yesterday’s negotiations between Zakaev and Kazantsev.” The Chechen administration said today, however, that the republic’s leadership viewed yesterday’s meeting, on the whole, favorably. “We welcome any steps aimed at achieving piece and stability in Chechnya,” the administration’s press secretary, Abdullah Izrailov, said. He added, however, that the fact that the talks were held in secret meant that the Chechens were being kept in the dark and raised fears that they could result in “half-measures” (Polit.ru, November 19).