Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 164

President Vladimir Putin said during a trip last week to southern Russia that negotiations to settle the Chechen conflict were “better than actions involving the use of force” and that the Kremlin was “ready for contacts with anyone.” The president, however, who was responding to a call by Union of Right-Wing Forces (SPS) leader Boris Nemtsov for Moscow to begin negotiations with Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov, added that such talks could begin only if the rebels handed over “odious bandits, up to their elbows in the Russian people’s blood”–an apparent reference to top field commanders like Shamil Basaev and Khattab, put down their weapons and gave up the goal of Chechen independence. Besides putting forward conditions that the rebels are unlikely to accept, Putin also said that Nemtsov should either convince the rebels to accept these conditions within a month or quit the State Duma and leave politics. In response, Nemtsov noted that the president had not appointed and thus could not dismiss him (Gazeta.ru, September 8; Moscow Times, September 10). The SPS leader recently traveled to Chechnya, and his demarche followed on the heels of reports that a group of Russian parliamentarians had met in Switzerland with emissaries of Maskhadov (see the Monitor, September 4).

The real question concerning Putin’s somewhat schizoid demarche was whether it was aimed simply at quashing Nemtsov’s peace initiative without appearing to shut the door entirely to a political settlement or was a kind of trial balloon. There are reasons to think that he may have been very tentatively testing the waters. On the one hand, it is clear that Russia’s military and security chiefs and their political allies would oppose such negotiations. Frustrated by the defeat in the 1994-1996 military campaign in Chechnya, the army high command wants revenge. In addition, the longer the Chechen war continues, the more profits it brings to the military high command and officer corps: Looting and the illegal oil trade have become booming businesses in the North Caucasus Military District. Thus the generals, who give orders directly to those who have the guns, will not allow the war in Chechnya to be ended by peace talks without being consulted first.

Putin is also hemmed in by the fact that Russians were willing to vote for him when he was still virtually unknown simply because he promised to “waste” those who had injured their patriotic pride and who–allegedly–blew up apartment buildings in Moscow and other cities. Abandoning the military campaign in favor of negotiations could cause Putin’s popularity rating to fall as quickly as it rose, particularly if his political rivals were to mount a campaign aimed at reminding the public how he failed to carry out his biggest promise.

On the other hand, Putin and his inner circle–who are, if anything, highly attuned to change in the public mood–may getting the sense that the public is tiring of the war and thus might forgive a reversal of policy, or even welcome it. Indeed, a poll taken in August by the All Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) found that only 30 percent of the respondents supported continued military action and that 59 percent were for peace talks. Sixty-six percent said they were for peace talks if the federal forces continued to suffer large losses. Only 22 percent said they supported continued military action even if the casualties continued to mount. These numbers suggest that the public has turned against the war (Polit.ru, September 7). Thus Putin may be allowing Nemtsov–who, despite his occasional criticisms of Kremlin policy, is on balance a supporter of the president–to push forward his peace plan in order to gauge the reaction both among the political elite and the public.

Whatever the case, the first reactions of politicians to Nemtsov’s initiative have been overwhelmingly negative. Franz Klintsevich, chairman of political council of Unity, the pro-Putin party, called it “the most cynical form of political demagogy” and “populism for blood,” adding that he was certain that there would be no “second Khasavyurt”–a reference to the Aleksandr Lebed’s 1999 negotiations that led to the end of Russia’s first military campaign in Chechnya. Sergei Shoigu, leader of the pro-Putin Unity party and emergency situations minister, echoed Putin’s words almost verbatim, saying that negotiations were preferable to warfare but that at a minimum the Chechen rebels had to end their terrorist attacks, start a cease-fire and give up their weapons. The head of Unity’s faction in the State Duma, Vladimir Pekhtin, said that there should be no negotiations whatsoever and that bandits must be convicted and jailed. “This is not our position only,” Pekhtin claimed. “It is the position of the president and the entire government” (Strana.ru, September 7). Both Viktor Kazanstev, Putin’s representative in the Southern federal district, and Akhmad Kadyrov, head of the pro-Moscow administration in Chechnya, said they opposed talks with Maskhadov (Moscow Times, September 10). Moskovsky Komsomolets, a newspaper that strongly opposed the first Chechen war, ridiculed both Nemtsov’s call for peace talks and the SPS leader himself in an article published today.

The Yabloko party was virtually alone in expressing support for Nemtsov’s initiative. Sergei Mitrokhin, a member of the Yabloko faction in the State Duma, said the party in general shared Nemtsov’s view on the need for negotiations and praised him for having stated it publicly. He also said that the federal authorities’ position on the idea of talks was not clear and that they had apparently not yet decided whether they were ready to negotiate (Oreanda.ru, September 8).