Aslan Maskhadov’s unilateral ceasefire last month evoked an initial reaction of skepticism from Russian authorities over the possibility of putting this order into practice – but ultimately officials seemed surprised by its effectiveness. On February 22, Arkady Baskaev, a State Duma deputy who specializes in security issues, told Ekho Moskvy that there had been “some decrease” in fighting in Chechnya over the previous two weeks. Russian soldiers have also recognized that the guerillas were silent last month. “I spent most of this month in Grozny, and it was really calm there,” a Russian spetsnaz commando told Newsru.com on February 22. “We didn’t even have any men injured.”
However, the ceasefire was apparently only part of the rebel campaign for peace. On February 25, a delegation of the Union of Soldiers’ Mothers Committees met in London with Chechen separatist representatives headed by Akhmed Zakaev. The Associated Press on February 24 quoted Valentina Melnikova, the organization’s head, as saying that “first of all, we want to listen to him [Zakayev], we want to know the Chechen commanders’ position…their plans, possibilities and preconditions.” The Chechen side seemed well-prepared for the talks, and the soldiers’ mothers had virtually no objections to the proposals made by Maskhadov’s emissaries and easily agreed to sign a memorandum drafted by the Chechens.
The memorandum was in essence a version of the plan drafted by Ilyas Akhmadov, Maskhadov’s foreign minister. The main idea of the plan is to make Chechnya an international protectorate. The memorandum calls for the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya in conjunction with rebel disarmament. According to the plan, international peacekeeping forces would then provide order in the republic, while the region’s economy would be reconstructed with the help of the Council of Europe.
There was no doubt, however, that such a peace proposal would infuriate the Kremlin. Indeed, a campaign against the Union of Soldiers’ Mothers Committees has already begun. On February 28, it was announced that the federal tax inspectorate would check all of the group’s financial documents. Moskovsky komsomolets reported on February 26 that Alexei Ostrovsky, a State Duma deputy, together with some of his colleagues, had asked the Federal Security Service (FSB) to collect information about the group’s activities and contacts with “wanted terrorists.”
The Kremlin also immediately reacted to the fact that Andreas Gross, the current rapporteur on Chechnya for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), and Lord Judd, the former PACE rapporteur on Chechnya, took part in the London meeting. After uneasy talks with the Russian government, the Council of Europe and Moscow agreed to hold a roundtable discussion on Chechnya in Strasbourg on March 21. But on February 28, Alu Alkhanov, Chechnya’s pro-Russian president, announced that he wanted the discussion to be held in Grozny, Moscow or some other Russian city. Alkhanov’s declaration reflected the Kremlin’s anger over the presence of PACE representatives at the meeting in London. Following the London meeting, the Kremlin clearly decided that it no longer needed to adhere to the Council of Europe’s proposal to have a roundtable discussion in Strasbourg.
Russian authorities have also demonstrated once again their determination to continue their strategy of holding a constitutional referendum along with presidential and parliamentary elections in Chechnya. The Kremlin is going to hold parliamentary elections in the republic this October on the basis of Chechnya’s new pro-Russian constitution. In Moscow’s view, such elections could provide the last brick for constructing Moscow-oriented power structures in the republic. As an answer to the Europeans, who are pressing Russia hard to start talking with Maskhadov, the Russian authorities held a special seminar, “The Role of Civil Society in Providing Social Stability in the North Caucasus,” in Moscow on February 26-27. Dmitry Kozak, the presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District, and Alu Alkhanov, along with other members of the Russian political elite took part in the event. More than 40 delegates, carefully selected by the authorities, were sent from Chechnya to Moscow as seminar participants. Thus the authorities started their preparations for another election campaign in the war-torn republic. In a statement reported by Yufo.ru on February 28, the seminar’s participants called for a division of the power branches in Chechnya “to increase their effectiveness in combating terrorism.” The Kremlin formula of “more money instead of talks” was also mentioned during the seminar. In his speech, Alu Alkhanov boasted of the “economic boom” that Chechnya is expected to experience this year.
However, Maskhadov’s peace activities, supported at high levels in Europe, put the Kremlin on the defensive. On February 22, Aslambek Aslakhanov, an adviser to President Putin, recognized the need for talks in Chechnya, but not with the rebel leaders. Aslakhanov said that Vladimir Putin had rejected any kind of talks with Maskhadov, but added that the military confrontation could not last forever and some negotiations were necessary. As Grani.ru reported on February 22, Aslakhanov’s proposal was to initiate a dialogue between low level rebel field commanders and those Chechens “who had suffered from the separatists.” Putin’s adviser strengthened his point by recalling that the rebels usually activate their operations when “there are leaves on the trees” – that is, in the spring.
As can bee seen, the Kremlin’s policy toward Chechnya is becoming more and more difficult to understand. While security officials want to end the Chechenization strategy (see Chechnya Weekly, Volume 6, Issue 8), the Kremlin’s official line remains the same. Nevertheless, some members of Putin’s team want to start talks to end the continuing violence, but do not clearly understand with whom they can talk and how.
At the same time, the level of public support for the Union of Soldiers’ Mothers Committees’ initiative is still too weak in Russia to force the Kremlin to enter into real talks with Maskhadov. Less than two hundred people took part in the anti-war rallies held in Moscow on February 23 and 26. The Russian media also provided very little coverage of the meeting in London. Despite the fact that Russian society is tired of war, it is still not ready to discuss the status of Chechnya or any other specific issues of peace in the Caucasus.