On July 13, President Vladimir Putin met with retired MVD General Aslambek Aslakhanov, the elected deputy to the Russian State Duma from Chechnya. Aslakhanov has consistently been a harsh critic of the numerous “mopping up operations” being conducted in the republic by the federal forces. In an interview published in the July 17 issue of Izvestia, Aslakhanov confided that the meeting with Putin had been held at his own request. “When we met for the first time, [Putin] said to me: ‘Call me any time. I am prepared to meet with you again.’ So I did.” “The president,” Aslakhanov went on, “was interested in our position on regulating the problems in Chechnya. The president wants to learn the true situation. Putin was interested in absolutely everything: what is being restored, whether the children are going to school, whether the hospitals are functioning, whether pensions are reaching people.”
Asked whether Putin was “on top of the situation” in Chechnya, Aslakhanov replied: “To keep in his head an enormous amount of information about Chechnya, Dagestan, Yakutiya, Irkutsk and so on is simply not realistic. I cannot say that Putin is fully informed about each military unit and that he knows about each cleansing operation. But on the whole, by his replies, it is clear that he is interested in the problem and well informed concerning certain questions.”
Asked whether the two had touched upon “the theme of the cleansing operations in Assinovskya and Sernovodsk,” Aslakhanov responded: “The president said this: they reported to me that there were excesses there and many infringements [of the law].” “I confirmed to him,” Aslakhanov related, “that there had indeed been many serious infractions in those villages. They had taken people out into a field and mocked them.” Aslakhanov also recalled that he had asked the president: “Why precisely did those cleansing operations have such a large resonance? After all, it was significantly worse in other districts, in Kurchaloi and Chiri-Yurt, for example. There the mopping up operations were conducted with a loss of life.” Aslakhanov added, “I think that in conducting those cleansing operations, they are simply ‘setting up’ the president.” It appeared, he said, that Putin had the intention of relaying all of the Duma deputy’s proposals to the Russian Security Council.
Asked what specific proposals he had made to Putin, Aslakhanov replied: “I proposed not to allocate the money earmarked for the restoration of the republic among the twenty-five ministries and agencies which work in Chechnya. The money should be concentrated in the [pro-Moscow] government of [Stanislav] Ilyasov. That way it can be more easily controlled.” “At present,” Aslakhanov emphasized, “about 40 percent of the funds are stolen in Moscow; another 20-30 percent are robbed in Chechnya, so for the restoration of the republic there remains virtually nothing.”
The online news service NTV.ru on July 13 reported some additional comments made by Aslakhanov on the subject of his meeting with the Russian president. “Aslakhanov,” NTV.ru wrote, “declared today that ‘no one ever’ had empowered him to conduct negotiations with Maskhadov. He stated that reports in which he was cited as maintaining that President Vladimir Putin had given him such powers did not conform to reality. ‘President Putin did not give me such powers,’ the deputy underlined.” Nonetheless, NTV.ru pointed out, Aslakhanov continues to believe in the wisdom of holding negotiations with Maskhadov: “I have from the beginning,” Aslakhanov said, “advocated a political resolution of the Chechen crisis. As early as the first campaign, I proposed that negotiations be conducted with Dudaev. And now I am proposing that meetings be held with Maskhadov.” Aslakhanov stressed that the pro-Moscow Chechen administration of Akhmad Kadyrov and the Russian military “categorically oppose” his call for negotiations.
On July 18, it was announced that Aslakhanov had been included as a member of the Government Commission for Questions of Restoring the Social Sphere and the Economy of the Chechen Republic, chaired by Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kas’yanov. Other members of the committee are: V. Berestovoi, deputy minister for taxes and collections; A. Ezhkov, a deputy director of the FSB; the general director of the Directorate for Construction and Restoration Work in the Chechen Republic, A. Popov; a deputy secretary of the Russian Security Council, V. Sobolev, and Yu. Shankin, the deputy general director of FAPSI (RIA Novosti, July 18).
To sum up, it is a welcome development that President Putin chose to meet for a second time with Duma deputy Aslakhanov, an articulate and vigorous defender of the interests of the Chechen people. And it is good that Aslakhanov has been included in the membership of a key committee chaired by Prime Minister Kas’yanov. But will Putin, Kas’yanov and other top Russian officials actually heed Aslakhanov’s informed advice? Is Aslakhanov’s inclusion a serious step or empty symbolism? The coming months should provide an answer to such questions.