Following President Putin’s televised statement on Chechnya of September 24, highly tentative negotiations began between the two sides involved in the conflict (for a detailed treatment on this subject, see Chechnya Weekly, October 3). Akhmed Zakaev, a deputy premier of the separatist government, named by President Aslan Maskhadov to conduct negotiations with the Russian side, reported that a first telephone conversation with the designated representative of the Russian president, retired General Viktor Kazantsev, the plenipotentiary presidential representative in the Southern Federal District, had occurred on September 28 at 4:30 pm Moscow time. Zakaev recounted that the conversation had lasted about twenty minutes and said that technical questions concerning the continuation of the negotiations had been discussed (GIA Chechenpress.com, September 29).
Several days later, Zakaev reported that he held a second “telephone dialogue” with Kazantsev. “According to A[khmed] Zakaev,” one separatist press account stated, “they discussed technical details of possible political negotiations between Russia and the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, and they also consulted about the place for conducting the first official dialogue between the two belligerents.” Zakaev dismissed as “deliberate disinformation” reports appearing in the Russian media that he had already physically met with Kazantsev in Rostov-on-Don. All contacts, he stressed, had been over the telephone. The two sides, he noted, had agreed to continue the dialogue (GIA Chechenpress, October 2).
The chief Russian spokesman for issues relating to the war, presidential aide Sergei Yastrzhembsky, appeared to be more cautionary in his comments. Arriving at the Moscow television studio of NTV on September 28 for an interview, Yastrzhembsky had, perhaps, been surprised by “an unexpected telephone call from [Akhmed] Zakaev to the television studio,” during which Zakaev informed NTV’s viewers that he had that same day had a conversation with Viktor Kazantsev. Following this telephone call to NTV, Yastrzhembsky proceeded to describe Zakaev as “a completely normal, sane man” for the conducting of talks with the federal side. Confirming that Zakaev had been authorized by President Maskhadov to conduct a dialogue with the federal authorities, Yastrzhembsky termed him “a sufficiently experienced politician” and noted that he had not been implicated “in any criminal case.” Having said this, Yastrzhembsky then went on to downplay the significance of the ongoing talks, which, he said, “are strictly limited, in the first place, to the surrendering of weapons and, in the second place, to a discussion of ways of integrating those who surrender their weapons into peaceful life” (Strana.ru, September 28).
On October 2, Yastrzhembsky, during a visit to the Izvestia media center in Moscow, confirmed that “Russia supports an initiative put forward by Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Alvaro Gil-Robles to hold a roundtable in Strasbourg to discuss humanitarian problems with representatives of various Chechen clans.” The presidential spokesman underlined that there had to date been no talk of including Aslan Maskhadov’s envoys in such a roundtable, suggesting that the Russian leadership remained skeptical about the usefulness of even talking to the separatists (Infocentre.ru, October 10).
The man Putin designated to talk to Zakaev, Viktor Kazantsev, poured even colder water over the prospects of successful talks with the separatists when he commented to the weekly Moskovskie Novosti at the beginning of October: “Previously the West provided food and heating to the bandits [presumably a reference to Western aid for Chechen refugees located in Ingushetia and elsewhere]. Now that shop has been closed. The Americans have finally begun to distinguish who is who. The Maskhadovites have also come to understand it. Maskhadov’s authorized representatives have begun to call me. I had a telephone conversation with Zakaev. How did he introduce himself? Simply as Akhmed Zakaev. I once again explained to him the political statement [of September 24] of the President of Russia. I do not exclude the possibility of a meeting with Maskhadov himself.”
And Kazantsev went on truculently to assert: “There will be no negotiations. There will be only a discussion of those positions which were set by the [Russian] president. If the Chechens want to babble on once again about a treaty between Russia and Ichkeria, then I say again: No dialogue will result. The Chechen Republic exists within Russia, and we will proceed from that fact” (Moskovskie Novosti, October 3).
In an interview with the army newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda, Kazantsev’s deputy, retired General Nikolai Britvin, asked pointedly: “Who will speak in the negotiations? In the recent statement of the President of Russia not one word is said about that. Or, even more, about negotiations being conducted with Maskhadov. There was only one condition set: come out and hand over your weapons…. We have ‘negotiators’ for people like Zakaev–they are investigators who work for the [Russian] procuracy…. The present loud ‘peace-loving’ declarations of the bandit formations will only bring the situation to a dead-end. But our position is clear cut: Give up your weapons, or there will be no negotiations” (Krasnaya Zvezda, October 6).
On September 29, Akhmed Zakaev asked President Eduard Shevardnadze of Georgia to serve as a mediator in the just-opened dialogue between Russia and Chechnya. The following day, Shevardnadze announced that he was prepared to act as a mediator in the process of settling the conflict if, like the Chechen separatist leadership, President Putin agreed to the suggestion (Prime News, Tbilisi, September 30). The following day, Russian presidential aide Yastrzhembsky affirmed categorically that Russia “did not need any international mediators whatsoever” to find a way out of the crisis (RIA Novosti, October 1). Also on 1 October, Ali Asaev, a nonrecognized separatist representative residing in Azerbaijan, told ANS TV Baku that the Maskhadov government intended to ask President Haidar Aliev to serve as a mediator in the Russo-Chechen conflict (ANS TV, October 1; translation by BBC Monitoring, October 2).