Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 78

Russian officials have again indicated that they are ready for negotiations with Chechen rebel leaders, including Aslan Maskhadov, the breakaway republic’s president. The Russian side, however, has made it clear that Maskhadov must meet certain conditions, while the Chechen leader has called for negotiations with no conditions. At the same time, some observers believe that the Russian hints about being ready to negotiate are simply propaganda aimed at the West.

In an April 17 interview with CNN, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said the military phase of the operation in Chechnya was over and the “political phase” for ending the crisis is underway. Russian authorities, he said, have begun carrying out “an active political dialogue with various representatives of Chechen society,” and confirmed that they have been in contact with representatives of Maskhadov. Earlier this year, the Russian Prosecutor General’s Office charged Maskhadov with launching and participating in an armed rebellion (see the Monitor, April 17). Ivanov told CNN that all contacts with Chechen representatives” must above all be based on the constitution of the Russian Federation, on respect for the law of our country. Only representatives of Chechen society ready to respect these principles can take part in the dialogue.” The foreign minister added that local governmental structures were being set up in Chechnya and that there would be elections in the republic in August for representatives to the State Duma (CNN, April 17).

Sergei Yastrzhembsky, President-elect Vladimir Putin’s spokesman on Chechnya, said yesterday that he did not exclude the possibility of negotiations with Maskhadov, if the Chechen leader fulfills “those conditions which are at the same time the goals of the counterterrorist operation” in Chechnya. Yastrzhembsky said that Maskhadov and his followers must first demonstrate good will by putting their weapons and handing over suspected terrorists. “Words and declarations alone are clearly insufficient,” Yastrzhembsky said. “Steps and deeds are necessary, and Maskhadov is evidently lacking them” (Russian agencies, Associated Press, April 18).

The statements from Ivanov and Yastrzhembsky surrounded Putin’s April 17 visit to London and meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. During that trip, Putin insisted that the Chechnya operation was not aimed at “Muslims or Chechens,” but only at freeing the republic from “terrorists.” In addition, he said that he welcomed the independent nongovernmental commission recently set up by former Justice Minister Pavel Krasheninnikov and other liberal politicians to monitor the human rights situation in Chechnya. Putin promised that Russia would cooperate with international human rights groups in investigating atrocities alleged to have been carried out by either side in the Chechen conflict (Vremya-MN, April 19).

Meanwhile, the sense that the Kremlin and Maskhadov may in fact be inching toward a political settlement was heightened yesterday. Bislan Gantemirov, the former mayor of the Chechen capital and ex-convict who was released from a Moscow prison last autumn to head a pro-Moscow police force in Chechnya, announced that he was resigning from that post because his forces had been sidelined by Russian police (Associated Press, April 18). Gantemirov, like other pro-Moscow Chechen leaders, would suffer as a result of a Kremlin-Maskhadov deal, and his resignation may have been a sign that such a deal is truly in the offing.

On the other hand, some observers see the Ivanov-Yastrzhembsky-Putin demarches as simply part of a propaganda push to blunt Western criticism while the war continues. Indeed, while those three officials were hinting at peace, General Gennady Troshev, the acting commander of the Russian military contingent in Chechnya, said that his forces were ready to continue to prosecute the war in order to achieve the “total destruction” of the rebels (see the Monitor, April 17). One newspaper said that the hints of a negotiated settlement from Putin and Ivanov were “political cover” for the war, aimed at Western public opinion, adding; “Given the competent use of this cover, no one, including the West, will prevent the army from taking this war to complete victory” (Vremya-MN, April 19).