Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 214

While the November 18 meeting between Viktor Kazantsev, President Vladimir Putin’s representative in the Southern federal district, and Akhmed Zakaev, representing the Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov, raised hopes that real negotiations for an end to the Chechen conflict had begun, the Russian side yesterday (November 19) returned to a tougher negotiating position. Speaking to reporters, Kazantsev stressed that the “main condition for dialogue” was “concrete steps” toward fulfilling Putin’s September 24 demarche, in which he asked the Chechen rebels to appear before federal officials to begin discussing ways to disarm and rejoin civilian life. Kazantsev said that he had not received “practical responses” concerning such steps from the Chechen side, that Zakaev’s proposals for peace sounded “more like slogans” and that it was unlikely the talks would continue if the rebels did not make a decision concerning disarmament. Kazantsev also stressed that Chechnya’s “political structure” was not up for discussion (AFP, Moscow Times, November 20). Following his meeting with Zakaev on Sunday, Kazantsev refused to comment in detail about it–the two sides have apparently agreed not to discuss the specifics of their talks publicly. He did say, however, that the “conversation” had been “constructive” and would be continued. Zakaev was equally upbeat after the meeting, but was also quoted by a pro-rebel website as saying that “the disarmament of the Chechen armed forces” had not been “on the agenda” (see the Monitor, November 19).

While Kazantsev’s comments suggested that the two sides remain far apart, sources close to the Chechen side insisted to the Monitor’s correspondent yesterday that the meeting was, in fact, extremely useful, if not a “breakthrough.” Expanding on this, they said: first, the very fact that the two sides had met was significant, given that such a meeting would have been unthinkable just a half year ago; second, that the opposing sides had exchanged a packet of principles for ending the war and regularizing relations; and, third, that in spite of the remaining serious disagreements, the two sides had expressed their desire to continue the talks.

From this point of view, therefore, it is possible to conclude that the negotiating process has begun in earnest, with Moscow ready to discuss an unprecedented level of autonomy for Chechnya, on the condition that Russia’s territorial integrity is preserved. The Chechen side, for its part, is ready to observe Russia’s geopolitical interests in the region, but will insist on political independence, up to and including membership in the leading international organizations. Observing “Russia’s geopolitical interests” in this case means agreeing to the continued presence of two Russian military bases in Chechnya. According to Suleiman Reshiev, who was economics minister in Maskhadov’s government, Maskhadov’s view on this issue has not changed. If these basic parameters for an agreement are retained, then Russia and Chechnya will in essence return to the situation of the summer of 1995, when Maskhadov, who was then chief of staff of the rebel armed forces, was negotiating with Anatoly Romanov, who was then commander of the federal forces in Chechnya. That negotiating process ended with an attempt on Romanov’s life.

Indeed, it must be kept in mind that there are forces hostile to the negotiations that are capable of, if not derailing them completely, then at least seriously complicating them. On the Russian side, there are opponents to the negotiations within the Russian military command and hardline nationalist political forces. On the Chechen side, Maskhadov has opponents among the more radical elements of the rebel forces, particularly influential field commanders like Shamil Basaev and Khattab. It is interesting to note that Basaev has not always been opposed to reaching an agreement with Moscow. In 1996, he told the Monitor’s correspondent that he had nothing against having Russian border guards or military bases in Chechnya, and said he was even willing to see Chechnya have a single economic space with Russia, given that Allah had willed Chechnya and Russia to be neighbors. However, he also insisted at the time that Chechnya must have political independence. Since then, his views have become more radical: According to Reshiev, Maskhadov’s former economics minister, Basaev has during the last five years fallen under the influence of forces interested in permanent instability in the region. But while he and Khattab may seek to scuttle negotiations, it is unlikely that they will find support from ordinary Chechens, who are sick of the war and hope for a peace settlement.

In any case, it is likely that the next meeting between representatives of Putin and Maskhadov will take place soon. It is also likely that negotiations will become more intensive, given that Maskhadov’s term as president of the self-declared Chechen Republic of Ichkeria expires in January of 2002 and Moscow would like to have at least reached an agreement with the rebels to halt military operations in Chechnya by that time.