On November 18, as was reported in the most recent issue of Chechnya Weekly, Akhmed Zakaev, a special representative of Chechen separatist president Aslan Maskhadov, and retired General Viktor Kazantsev, President Putin’s plenipotentiary representative in the Southern Federal District, held a two-hour lunch in the VIP lounge of Moscow’s Sheremet’evo II Airport. The no. 48 (November 27-December 3) issue of Moskovskie Novosti offered Kazantsev’s comments concerning that meeting.
“As you know,” Kazantsev began, “Zakaev approached me a long time ago. He persistently requested a meeting. When he received [my] consent, he then began to name such places as Turkey, Georgia, and Azerbaijan [as a location for their meeting]… I put it to him directly: This is a question which concerns Russia. Our internal issues must be resolved on our territory. It will be in Grozny, or in Rostov, or, as the President [Putin] proposed, in Moscow–I don’t care. Zakaev mulled it over for a long time. He was afraid that during the meeting he would be placed in handcuffs. But, having received guarantees, he agreed to come to Moscow.” The Turkish politician who accompanied Zakaev on his journey to Moscow from Istanbul, Kazantsev emphasized, was there “simply as a sponsor and, simultaneously, as a bodyguard. He did not participate in the negotiations. He sat in another place. Zakaev and I spoke one-on-one.”
What did Kazantsev and Zakaev speak about? “I immediately said to him,” Kazantsev recalled, “that there would be no Khasavyurt. If he and Maskhadov were together with Basaev and Khattab, then let them announce that to the people, and then we will speak with them as we would with bandits. I did not retreat from the president’s September demands or from the [Russian] Constitution either. I gave him a chance to think it over, to determine whom they are with. Zakaev mulled it over. Incidentally, he himself admitted that Maskhadov does not control the situation in Chechnya.”
Before the two parted, Kazantsev noted, “I said to him: ‘If you come up with something useful, call me or come [in person]. I have deputies, and they will help….’ We did not sign any documents. In order to come to any conclusions, I had to hear him out. So I did that.”
The Moskovskie Novosti journalist, Aleksandr Tolmachev, who interviewed Kazantsev, asked him about objections to the negotiations on the part of the Russian military leadership. “General Troshev,” Tolmachev recalled, “has declared that position in categorical form.” Kazantsev responded to this question with some heat: “When I commanded a [military] district,” he said, “I never presented my assessment to politicians or even more to the leadership of the country. The president and his apparatus made the decisions…. Imagine if the Americans catch Bin Laden before we get Khattab and Basaev. It will be a disgrace. Let Troshev occupy himself with that.”
During an interview with Russia’s NTV, conducted in Istanbul on November 25, Akhmed Zakaev directly admitted, according to the network’s correspondent, that “Maskhadov does not control the situation in Chechnya now, but he is convinced that peace talks can only be held with him [Maskhadov].” Zakaev is then heard stating in a film clip: “As to who controls more or less [of Chechnya]-yes, at the moment, no one is in control” (NTV, 25 November; translated by BBC Monitoring, November 27).
In reflecting on the import of the Kazantsev-Zakaev meeting, journalist Alla Barakhova observed in the no. 47 (November 27) issue of Kommersant-Vlast’: “If one supposes that the meeting in Sheremt’evo was conceived from the very beginning as a PR exercise, then everything assumes its proper place. The war in Chechnya remains the main stumbling block in the relations of President Putin with the West, which even after September 11, from time to time, criticizes Russia for an unjustifiable use of force against its own people and a lack of desire to halt the conflict by peaceful means. The VIP-lounge meeting in Sheremt’evo II can become a serious trump-card in the hands of the Kremlin. Now Vladimir Putin has something to answer to the West…”
The Maskhadov side, Barakhova added, “also received dividends from the meeting. From the beginning of the military campaign in Chechnya, Russian military propaganda in accord with the Kremlin demoted Maskhadov from a legitimate president to a criminal… Even if contacts are not continued, Aslan Maskhadov has, at the least, been recognized as a man who can speak with Russian power in the name of the Chechen people. Moreover, a recognition of this was strengthened by the participation in the meeting, be it only formally, of a representative of a third country, in this case Turkey.”
“However,” Barakhova went on to stipulate, “Aslan Maskhadov can hardly count on anything more. Theoretically it is completely likely that the Kremlin would agree to legalize his presidency-either by designating him the head of Chechnya through a decree of Putin’s or by means of conducting new elections when Maskhadov’s current term expires in January 2002. But this would be possible only if he, following the example of his former comrade-in-arms Mufti Kadyrov, fully observed the conditions set by Moscow and effectively went over to the side of the federal regime. Such a scenario, however, looks completely unlikely: Maskhadov understands perfectly that the remnants of his authority among the Chechens rests not as much on his presidency as it does on the fact that he is the formal leader of the Chechen resistance.”
And Barakhova concluded: “However, even if Maskhadov were to accept all of the conditions set by Moscow, it would not have a serious effect on the situation in Chechnya: The president of Ichkeria has for a long time not had a real influence on his co-combatants in the struggle for the independence of Chechnya. And Khattab and Basaev will continue to make war independently of whether or not Russo-Chechen negotiations take place.”
If Barakhova’s analysis roughly reflects the thinking of the Kremlin, then it seems likely that Moscow will continue to simulate negotiations for the edification of the West, while at the same time placing most of its eggs in the basket of Chechenization, a process currently being spearheaded by Akhmad Kadyrov. As the online daily Gazeta.ru noted on November 28, Kadyrov achieved a significant political victory when, two days previously, an ethnic Chechen and former FSB officer, Said Peskhoev, was formally presented as the new pro-Moscow police chief of Chechnya. “Peskhoev,” Gazeta.ru wrote, “was appointed thanks to the insistent efforts of Kadyrov… According to some sources, Peskhoev’s candidacy was endorsed in mid-October when Akhmed Kadyrov met with Vladimir Putin and demanded greater powers for his administration.”
On November 30, the same Gazeta.ru reported that Kadyrov had that day announced that he was prepared to hold talks even with Shamil’ Basaev and Khattab. “I have something to say to them,” he maintained, “and I am ready to hear them out.” According to Kadyrov’s sources, both Khattab and Basaev are currently in Chechnya. “Kadyrov does not believe the reports alleging that Khattab has left, or plans to leave, for Afghanistan, even though the reports have been echoed even at the official level.”
To conclude, it appears likely that Moscow’s current strategy is de facto to support the process of Chechenization being spearheaded by a loyal appointee, Kadyrov, while simultaneously paying lip service, for essentially PR purposes, to a negotiation process with separatists Aslan Maskhadov and Akhmed Zakaev.