Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 220

President Vladimir Putin’s representative in the Southern federal district, Viktor Kazantsev, announced on November 23 in Rostov-on-Don that his representatives have been holding talks with Chechen rebel field commander Ruslan Gelaev. At the same time, Kazantsev ruled out any possibility for talks with Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov. Kazantsev said he had on several occasions urged Maskhadov to halt military operations and sit down at the negotiating table, but that Maskhadov had not done so. Kazantsev also claimed that Maskhadov “influences nothing” and that Shamil Basaev and Khattab, the two radical field commanders who have opposed Maskhadov, are “in command.” In addition, Kazantsev predicted that the war in Chechnya would end in three or four months (Kommersant, November 24).

Kazantsev’s comments came shortly after an interview by Maskhadov, during which he said he was ready to sit down to negotiations without any preconditions. Maskhadov said he was prepared to comply with the resolution put forward by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly, both of which called for an immediate cessation of hostilities and the start of negotiations in Chechnya. Maskhadov said that the war in Chechnya had entered a guerrilla phase, and that the Russian army and law enforcement structures were sustaining two to three times more casualties now than they had during the conventional part of the Chechen military operation. Maskhadov claimed that Russia’s generals were hiding the true dimension of the troop losses from President Vladimir Putin. The Chechen president suggested that former President Boris Yeltsin could serve as an intermediary for the negotiations (Moscow News, November 21).

Kazantsev’s demarche was fresh evidence that the Kremlin had not been able to formulate a unified policy vis-a-vis Chechnya, and that various high-level state officials have been taking their own approach to the issue. Indeed, Defense Minister Igor Sergeev categorically denied Kazantsev’s claims that Moscow is involved in talks with the Chechen separatists, calling such assertions “nonsense” (Russian agencies, November 24).

Meanwhile Chechen rebels have continued their campaign of violence against so-called “national traitors,” as they call Chechens working with Russian organs of power. For the second time this month, Malika Gezimieva, head of the Gudermes regional administration, was the apparent target of an apparent assassination attempt. Unknown attackers fired at her car with rocket-propelled grenades and guns. Gezimieva was not in the car at the time of the attack, but her bodyguard and son were slightly wounded. Earlier this month, a powerful radio-controlled mine was detonated underneath Gezimieva’s car. The blast severely wounded one of her bodyguards and her driver, but Gezimieva herself was unhurt (see the Monitor, November 6). Given these attacks, it is interesting to note that Viktor Kazantsev said in his interview that “strengthening the local organs of power” was now the Kremlin’s main task in Chechnya. However, the unceasing terrorist attacks against Chechens working for Moscow suggests that this will be no easy task. Last week, Putin called for the military operation to be completed rapidly, criticizing the federal forces for a lack of professionalism and saying: “We do not need victory at any price” (Moscow Times, November 22).

Besides carrying out ambushes like the latest attempt on the life of the Gudermes regional head, Chechen rebel fighters are also continuing a bombing campaign. An explosive device went off yesterday evening in a local police office in the Chechen village of Kurchala. Because the blast occurred at night, no one was in the building and therefore no one was hurt. Another bomb went off on November 25 not far from the village of Komsomolsk, in the Urus-Martan region. The explosion was apparently targeted at investigators who were questioning residents of the village of Goiti suspected of rebel activity. One suspect was seriously wounded in the blast and later died; an investigator was wounded. Explosive devices were discovered and defused over the weekend in the villages of Prigorodnoe, Khatuni and Staryi Atagi. A number were also found over the weekend in Djohar [Grozny], the Chechen capital, including three bombs discovered in one place (Russian agencies, November 26). Russian forces tightened security measures in Chechnya and elsewhere in the North Caucasus yesterday, warning that Chechen rebels were preparing to carry out a series of terrorist attacks throughout the regions (NTV, November 26).

Some observers have noted that, while at that start of the military campaign last year many Chechens viewed the separatists and the federal forces with equal antipathy, abuses by the latter have increased support for the former among Chechen civilians and allowed the rebels to conduct effective guerrilla operations. Indeed, Medins sans Frontieres (MSF) [Doctors Without Borders], the Nobel Peace Prize-winning international relief group, issued a report last week accusing Moscow of carrying out a “policy of terror” in Chechnya, including arbitrary executions and ethnic cleansing. An MSF spokesman said that Moscow’s military operations in Chechnya and acts of violence committed by Russian forces against individuals were essentially “collective punishment” against the civilian population. The MSF report was entitled “Chechnya, the Politics of Terror” (Moscow Times, November 24).