Top Russian officials are continuing to put out mixed signals over the possibility of conducting peace talks with the Chechen rebels. Viktor Kazantsev, presidential representative in the Southern federal district, told the Gazeta.ru website yesterday that talks with Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov were possible, but only if the Chechen leader were able to convince all rebel groups operating on Chechen territory to cease fire for at least a month. Kazantsev added, however, that he had little faith that Maskhadov could achieve this (Gazeta.ru, July 5).
Despite Kazantsev’s caveats, the mere fact that he publicly stated Moscow would under certain circumstances consider talks with Maskhadov is itself sensational, given that top Russian officials like Sergei Yastrzhembsky, an aide to President Vladimir Putin, have consistently dismissed out of hand the possibility of such negotiations. In fact, just hours before making his comments to Gazeta.ru, Kazantsev himself was quoted by the state’s Ria Novosti news agency as saying that it was “senseless” to hold talks with Maskhadov, who, he claimed, represents no one in Chechnya and is guilty of destroying the republic’s population (Lenta.ru, July 5). Last week, Yastrzhembsky again ruled out talks with Maskhadov, saying the only official who would speak with the Chechen leader was the prosecutor general–a reference to the fact that Maskhadov is on Russia’s list of wanted criminals (see the Monitor, July 29). This week, Ria Novosti quoted Yastrzhembsky as warning that the rebels were planning to launch a disinformation campaign to the effect that Moscow was planning to dump Akhmad Kadyrov, head of the pro-Moscow Chechen administration, and begin negotiations with Maskhadov (Russian agencies, July 2).
These contradictory statements from Kremlin officials come amid heavy speculation in the Russian media that the Kremlin may indeed be preparing to sit down with Maskhadov to negotiate an end to the Chechen conflict, which seems unwinnable for the federal forces, despite their recent success in hunting down and killing a notorious warlord, Arbi Baraev. Indeed, according to one theory, the killing of Baraev may have been part of a broader Russian push to remove Maskhadov’s opponents among the radical Chechen rebel field commanders and thereby clear the way for negotiations with him (see the Monitor, June 27; Fortnight in Review, July 6).
OPERATION “THUNDERBOLT” FAILS.