Presidents Boris Yeltsin of Russia and Aslan Maskhadov of Chechnya met in Moscow today for the first time since they signed a peace treaty earlier this year. They hoped to resolve the political differences that last month provoked Maskhadov to suspend all negotiations between the two sides at lower than presidential level. "This is not going to be an easy talk," Yeltsin press secretary Sergei Yastrzhembsky predicted. (AP, August 7) Maskhadov says he will press Russia to sign a full-fledged international treaty with Chechnya, recognizing the republic’s independence and establishing full diplomatic relations; he says Chechnya wants to open an embassy in Moscow. Two weeks ago, Chechnya opened a mission in the capital of Tatarstan, Kazan, and adopted legislation making Chechen the republic’s sole official language and declaring Russian a foreign language. Last week, Maskhadov announced that Chechnya will switch to its own passports and vehicle license plates. Russia has rejected the idea of an international treaty, arguing that the peace treaty signed in the spring leaves Chechnya’s political status undecided until 2000. By the same token, Chechnya has repeatedly rejected the Tatarstan-style power-sharing treaty that Yeltsin is expected to propose at today’s meeting
However, there are some signs of improved cooperation. Moscow has denied Chechen charges that it is foot dragging over the payment of reparations, but Yeltsin went out of his way last week to pledge that Russia will keep its promise to help rebuild the republic’s war-shattered economy. Over the weekend, moreover, a group of security experts from Russia’s Interior Ministry and Federal Security Service traveled to Chechnya to help with the search for missing persons. (Itar-Tass, August 17) Two Russian TV journalists — Ilyas Bogatyrev and Vladislav Chernyaev — were released from captivity in recent days, but Russian Security Council secretary Ivan Rybkin says that over 1,400 people still remain unaccounted for. (ORT, BBC, August 17) In addition to soldiers missing in action, those missing include British and French aid workers and Russian TV journalist Yelena Masyuk, together with her film crew. All efforts have so far failed to secure their release and the Chechen authorities now claim Masyuk is being held outside Chechnya. Yesterday, Rybkin and Chechnya’s first deputy premier, Movladi Udugov, signed a protocol that will for the first time permit relatives of those missing to conduct their own searches, visit prisons, and assist police in locating family members. (ORT, August 17)
Rybkin said he hoped that today’s summit would result in the signing of a new protocol by the two presidents, but Udugov was less optimistic. He said that, if Russia continues to refuse diplomatic recognition to Chechnya, the talks will be aborted. Russia is adamant it will not grant such recognition, but the fact that Maskhadov has agreed to travel to Moscow (instead of, as Chechnya originally suggested, to a third country) suggests Chechnya believes Russia may be more forthcoming on this occasion. Both sides need urgently to mend their fences: otherwise, both run the risk of losing valuable income from the transport of Caspian Sea oil across Chechen and Russian territory.