Russian politicians have been reacting to the first meeting between Viktor Kazantsev, President Vladimir Putin’s representative in the Southern federal district, and Akhmed Zakaev, representing the Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov, which took place on November 18. Sergei Yushenkov, who is deputy head of the State Duma’s security committee and a leader of the Liberal Russia movement, welcomed the November 18 meeting, saying that it meant that the Kremlin no longer considered Maskhadov a terrorist. Another liberal politician, Vladimir Lukin–a deputy Duma speaker, member of the Yabloko faction and former Russian ambassador to the United States–said the fact that the meeting between Kazantsev and Zakaev took place at all was significant, calling it “a modest movement forward” that he hoped would continue. On the other side of the political spectrum, State Duma Speaker Gennady Seleznev, who is a member of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation (KPRF), said the possibility of an agreement for the rebels to disarm and “start living peacefully” should be welcomed, adding that Zakaev was “probably a figure who could maintain a political dialogue” and represented “a group that the current bandit formations in Chechnya listen to.”
Not surprisingly, there were also skeptics. Nikolai Kovalev, a State Duma deputy who once headed Russia’s domestic security service, said that there were “more than enough of these kind of meetings in the mid-1990s, and they all finished with zero results.” Likewise, Anatoly Shkirko, former head of the Interior Ministry’s internal troops, predicted that Zakaev would use the talks to stall and buy time for the rebels–repeating, in his view, what happened in 1995. “I believe that Russia’s position must be firm and in no way should those who have legitimate power in [Chechnya] be moved to the side,” Shkirko said, apparently referring to Akhmad Kadyrov, head of the pro-Moscow administration in Chechnya (Izvestia.ru, November 19; Moscow Times, November 20). Kadyrov, for his part, predicted that the talks would go nowhere, insisting that Basaev and Khattab would never take orders from Maskhadov, who, he claimed, commanded only “three or four people.” Kadyrov quoted Federation Council Speaker Yegor Stroev as expressing similar doubts and warning that the rebels would use the negotiations to stall and regroup (Vremya Novostei, November 20).
Interestingly, Zakaev, asked by the newspaper Kommersant to comment on rumors that Boris Berezovsky, the oligarch who went into self-imposed exile last year after criticizing Putin, had helped organize the November 18 meeting with Viktor Kazantsev, did not directly confirm the rumors, but did not deny them either. Zakaev said that he and Berezovsky, who during the Yeltsin administration dealt with Chechen issues as deputy secretary of the Kremlin’s Security Council, shared the view that there was no military solution to the Chechen conflict. Zakaev said he was in contact with Berezovsky, with whom he has been “exchanging ideas” (Kommersant, November 20). Kommersant, it should be noted, is part of Berezovsky’s media empire.
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