President Vladimir Putin’s deadline for Chechen rebels to contact federal officials to begin discussing a procedure for disarmament passed yesterday, with apparently few rebels meeting it. On the contrary, rebels carried out various attacks, including the murder of Sheikhi Dubaev, a close associate of the head of Chechnya’s pro-Moscow administration, Akhmad Kadyrov. According to officials of that administration, Dubaev, who had been named deputy military commandant of the Kurchaloi district just two days earlier, was killed while traveling from the city of Gudermes to Kurchaloi. Residents of the area where the attack took place were quoted as saying that the attackers were “Arab mercenaries.” A car blew up near the local administration building in the Leninsk district of Djohar (Grozny), the Chechen capital. The authorities believed the blast was the result of a suicide bomber whose car exploded prematurely (Kommersant, September 28).
Meanwhile, officials and other observers continued to differ over whether Putin’s deadline, which he put forward during his September 24 televised speech outlining Russia’s position vis-a-vis the U.S.-led antiterrorism campaign, was a genuine attempt to find a negotiated solution to the Chechen conflict or a prelude to military escalation. Many Russian military officers apparently took it as the latter. General Sergei Kizyun, Chechnya’s military commandant, told an interviewer that Putin, in laying down the seventy-two-hour deadline, had given those Chechen rebels who were open to a peaceful settlement the chance to come in from the cold, and that those who remained hidden “in the mountains and woods” were outlaws. “Now we will deal with the terrorists and quickly patch up the Chechen hole,” Kizyun said (Kommersant, September 28).
According to some observers, the federal authorities have already begun to escalate their military operations against the rebels. Sergei Kovalev, the State Duma deputy and well-known human rights activist, claimed during a session of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) in Strasbourg that the federal forces had begun a massive bombardment of Chechnya’s Nozhai-Yurt and Vedeno regions. Kovalev’s claim was denied by Boris Slutsky, a member of Russia’s PACE delegation, Dmitry Rogozin, head of the Duma’s international affairs committee, who was also in Strasbourg, and presidential aide Sergei Yastrzhembsky (RIA-Novosti, Polit.ru, Radio Ekho Moskvy, September 27).
Yastrzhembsky also insisted yesterday that the passing of the deadline would not be followed by a massive military strike against the rebels. He said that while the “counterterrorist operation” in Chechnya would continue, it would be more pinpointed and selective. Yastrzhembsky also denied that Putin’s deadline constituted an “ultimatum” (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 27). Meanwhile, Viktor Kazantsev, Putin’s representative in the Southern federal district, who was tasked with overseeing the deadline and any rebel handover of weapons, said in a television interview yesterday that he had met with a representative of Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov and that a negotiating process had “actually begun.” “I’m not saying that they are ready: They have doubts,” Kazantsev said of the rebels. He did not rule out that the next step could be direct talks with Maskhadov, provided that the rebels fulfilled the conditions Putin has laid down. Kazantsev added he would urge the president to extend the deadline for the rebels to voluntarily turn in their weapons (RTR, September 27). Following Putin’s September 24 speech, Maskhadov authorized his vice premier, Akhmed Zakaev, to represent him in talks with the federal authorities (Radio Liberty, September 26).
While it remains unclear whether Moscow is preparing the ground for real negotiations or simply making a token effort in order to justify military escalation, it is interesting to note that the federal authorities today imposed a curfew throughout Chechnya. Interior Ministry sources were quoted as saying that any form of transportation or simply walking on the streets would be banned from 8 pm through 6 am (NTV.ru, September 28).
Meanwhile, the Committee for the End of War in Chechnya, which includes Yelena Bonner, the veteran human rights activist and widow of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Andrei Sakharov, called on the Russian authorities “to respond to the initiative of (Chechen separatist) President Aslan Maskhadov who named a negotiator to hold talks with President Vladimir Putin’s envoy, Viktor Kazantsev” (AFP, September 27).
POST-SEPTEMBER 11 SITUATION FAVORS BALTIC PROSPECTS FOR NATO.