On February 7, just four days after the Chechen separatist Kavkazcenter website reported that Aslan Maskhadov had ordered rebel fighters to lay down their weapons for one month, Kommersant published an interview with the separatist leader. The newspaper reported that it had transmitted its questions to Maskhadov through his general representative abroad, Umar Khambiev.
Asked why he had announced a ceasefire, Maskahdov called it a “goodwill gesture” and “an attempt to demonstrate devotion to peace and call upon the Russian leadership to see reason.” “In my view, the processes taking place today in the Caucasus are leading to catastrophe,” Maskhadov said. “In this situation I consider it my duty to undertake maximum efforts to avert the real threat not only to my people, but to all the people of Russia and the Caucasus. At the same time, I am not sure that President Vladimir Putin is for certain informed about what a deep chasm of catastrophe Russia and the whole Caucasus are falling into. I believe that the political wills of the presidents of Russian and Ichkeria are capable of putting an end to this carnage. Therefore my appeal above all was directed precisely at the president of Russia, and then, of course, to all whose consciences have not degraded once and for all.”
Maskhadov indicted there was no significance to the fact that the ceasefire was announced for February. (Some media gave significance to the fact that rebel warlord Shamil Basaev, in his February 3 order calling on separatist fighters to obey Maskhadov’s ceasefire, had announced the ceasefire would last until February 22 – one day before the 61st anniversary of Stalin’s deportation of the Chechen and Ingush people.) Maskhadov also denied the ceasefire was connected to the abduction of his relatives. “Many citizens of Chechnya are being kidnapped and murdered already for the sixth year,” he said. “Therefore I do not believe that my family feelings should prevail over the feeling of duty to my people.” He also denied that the ceasefire was a demonstration of “strength”: some observers have speculated that in announcing the ceasefire, Maskhadov was attempting to dispel the view that he has no control over the rebel movement’s various field commanders.
Maskhadov said that in addition to ordering a temporary cessation of all offensive military actions, he also signed a decree naming “a delegation for contacts with the Russian side,” which will be headed by Umar Khambiev.
Noting that following the Dubrovka theater hostage-taking in October 2002, Shamil Basaev announced he was no longer taking orders from Maskhadov, Kommersant asked Maskhadov whether Basaev had again become his subordinate. “Shamil Basaev has not been part of the structures of the armed forces of Ichkeria since that time,” Maskhadov answered. “Our differences, based above all on his choice of methods of warfare that are unacceptable to the Chechen side, are not a secret to anyone. Basaev believes he has the right to use methods that I cannot, on principle, agree with. I have repeatedly spoken about this and therefore will not repeat myself. After the terrible, tragic events in Beslan, I told the world that after the end of the war we will officially hand over to the International Criminal Tribunal all individuals involved in crimes against humanity, including Basaev, who is suspected in the seizure of the Dubrovka theater and the school in Beslan. And until then, I will in every way possible [try to prevent] both him and other commanders from carrying out any attacks against Russian civilians. If Basaev obeys my truce order, I will consider that I have succeeded in averting many terrorist acts, which are unacceptable for our side.”
Asked about rumor over the past week that Basaev had been killed, Maskhadov said it was “the fifth or sixth time in the past six years that Shamil’s ‘death’ has been reported.”
Not surprisingly, Chechen President Alu Alkhanov dismissed both Maskhadov’s reiteration of his call for talks and his ceasefire announcement. “Maskhadov’s statement about the one-sided cease-fire is a lie from the beginning to the end,” Alkhanov said, Ekho Moskvy radio reported on February 8. “Maskhadov is still expected at the prosecutor’s office.” Chechen State Council Chairman Taus Dzhabrailov told Interfax on February 7: “The stand of the national administration is unwavering – there will be no political contacts with Maskhadov and his circle.” Earlier, Dzhabrailov rejected Maskhadov’s ceasefire as a “bluff.”
While the Kremlin has not directly responded to Maskhadov’s unilateral ceasefire and offer to negotiate, a close ally of President Vladimir Putin, Federal Council Chairman Sergei Mironov, told reporters on February 8 that he saw no basis for “Russian power structures” to react in any way to Maskhadov’s recent statements. Like other officials, Mironov questioned whether Maskhadov “really controls anything in Chechnya,” Yufo.ru reported. On February 3, immediately after Maskhadov’s ceasefire announcement was made public, the Prosecutor General’s Office announced that he was being charged with complicity in organizing Beslan school hostage seizure, for which Basaev claimed responsibility.
Despite the uniformly negative public reactions by Russian officials, some observers say other processes may be taking place behind the scenes. “There are people around Putin who are suggesting it is time to end the Chechen war,” Aleksei Malashenko, a security analyst from the Carnegie Center, told Reuters on February 3. “Maskhadov and Basaev could see this is a favorable time for such an approach.”
Kommersant reported on February 8 that Umar Khambiev had told the paper that Maskhadov’s initiatives had sparked the interest of “influential European politicians” who are determined to promote a resolution of the Chechen conflict. “For the moment I cannot be any more specific about this, but you will soon hear all about it,” Khambiev told the newspaper. He also said: “We have not received any proposals from the Russian side, but we are hoping that it will happen.”
Meanwhile, Reuters on February 8 quoted a source in the Russian government’s media supervisory service as saying that Kommersant had been officially warned for publishing the interview with Maskhadov. The interview, the source told Interfax, “provided a terrorist wanted by the federal authorities and Interpol with an opportunity to publicly justify terrorism and threaten continued terrorist activity.” According to Russian law, if a media outlet receives three such warnings, the government can seek a court order to close it down.