Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 2 Issue: 2

As reported in the most recent issue of this publication, on December 23 Boris Nemtsov, leader of the Union of Right Forces faction in the State Duma, headed a group of Duma deputies which met in Ingushetia with a delegation of separatists who had been elected to the Chechen parliament in early 1997. The participation of one Russian Duma deputy in particular–Sergei Kovalev–in these negotiations elicited a number of venomous attacks in the Russian media. This was hardly surprising given that Kovalev, who had earlier served as both President Yeltsin’s and the Duma’s human rights commissioner, did more than any other Russian political figure, with the exception of General Aleksandr Lebed, to end the 1994-1996 war, and that he has emerged as a strong advocate of a negotiated settlement to end the current conflict.

On December 27, a militantly pro-war journalist, Mikhail Leont’ev, assailed Kovalev on the ORT (state television) program Odnako: “If someone [presumably a reference to Nemtsov] wants to conduct negotiations from some kind of statist positions,” he declared, “then why drag after oneself the little blessed one, Kovalev, a professional holy fool who is only capable of licking the boots of bandits.” Another pundit, Oleg Petrovsky, who explicitly embraced Leont’ev’s televised statement, wrote on December 28: “I don’t make accusations against Sergei Adamovich Kovalev, whom unlettered soldiers… have christened ‘the prostitute.’ I am personally unacquainted with Kovalev, and thank God for that.”

Petrovsky then vented a fear besetting all pro-war commentators: namely, that a new “Khasavyurt peace” [a reference to the late August 1996 accords which brought an end to the first conflict] could be in the works. “Sergei Adamovich Kovalev today also calls for negotiations with Maskhadov,” he noted, adding: “The peacemaker Kovalev can take pride in the Khasavyurt peace. The official war ended, the troops left rebellious Chechnya… and everything began anew.” And Petrovsky warned solemnly: “The ghost of Khasavyurt has once again begun to gleam on the horizon of the Chechen war. But there is one thing that no-one knows-what one should talk about with the unfortunate Maskhadov” (Utro website, December 28).

In an unsigned article, entitled “Nemtsov as an International Saboteur,” which appeared in the online on December 25, the nameless author, after drawing attention to a comment by presidential spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky that the Nemtsov delegation had included “people who in their time had assisted the signing of the Khasavyurt Accords,” fulminated: “With his [Sergei Kovalev’s] name is eternally connected not only the disgrace of Khasavyurt but also the tragic fate of many Russian soldiers, who surrendered themselves to bandit captivity thanks to the promises of this ‘human rights defender’…. It is noteworthy that the sufferings of the abased and destroyed Russian populace (as well as of peaceful Chechens loyal to Moscow) were stubbornly not noticed by Mr. Kovalev.” The current peace initiative has also been denounced, the author pointed out, by the pro-Moscow mayor of Djohar [Grozny], Bislan Gantamirov, who has cautioned: “This will be perceived among pro-Russian Chechens and also among the [Russian] soldiers as a capitulation.”

In an interview appearing in the January 3-15 issue of Moskovsky novostei, Kovalev spoke about his position as a Duma delegate to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) which, as has been remarked, is due on January 22-26 to debate whether or not to restore Russia’s voting rights in that assembly. On December 27, Dmitri Rogozin, chairman of the State Duma’s International Committee and leader of the Duma’s delegation to PACE, announced that “henceforth Sergei Kovalev will not represent Russia in the sessions of PACE.” Kovalev, Rogozin reported, had been “demoted” and was now merely a deputy representative of the Union of Right Forces’ delegation to PACE. “A deputy representative,” Rogozin stipulated, “can travel to Strasbourg only if the representative [Oleg Naumov] does not go, and only the representative has a right to vote.” Rogozin stridently reminded his listeners that Kovalev had taken “anti-Russian positions” in the past (Izvestia, December 28).

It soon emerged that the Union of Right Forces faction in the State Duma had heatedly debated whether or not to oust Kovalev from the faction’s delegation to PACE. Last year, Kovalev had voted in the PACE assembly “for the introduction of sanctions with regard to Russia,” due to its massive human rights violations in Chechnya. This action had been perceived as an embarrassment by influential faction members, such as plenipotentiary presidential representative Sergei Kirienko and Governor Konstantin Titov of Samara. They had demanded that Kovalev be jettisoned from the PACE delegation (Kommersant daily, December 28).

However, as Kovalev noted in his interview with Moskovsky novostei: “After my speeches at the [last] session of PACE, an attempt was made in general to remove me from the delegation of the State Duma [to PACE]. Such a decision, however, was not supported by a majority of the faction members. They then ‘demoted’ me to a deputy delegate. That bothers me very little-the main thing is that I received guarantees that, as before, I can freely speak at the PACE sessions and present my opinion… In the final analysis, let the delegation of the State Duma obtain the possibility to demonstrate their patriotic unity to the European community.” (It should be remarked that Kovalev’s assertion that he would be able to attend the PACE meetings and to speak his mind there contradicted Rogozin’s claim that Kovalev would not be permitted to travel to Strasbourg, if deputy Naumov were to go.)

Kovalev proceeded to clarify his positions with regard to PACE and the current war in Chechnya. “In Russia,” he commented, “patriotism has traditionally been understood as a love for everything that the regime does. In that sense, the [19th century] Decembrists, for example, were not patriots. And I am not a patriot.” “I remind you,” Kovalev went on, “that I was one of the most energetic adherents of Russia’s being received into the Council of Europe…. My country (and here I repeat the words of Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov) is in need both of support and of pressure.” Such a dual approach underpinned Kovalev’s earlier speeches at PACE.

The leader of the Union of Right Forces faction, Boris Nemtsov, Kovalev noted, was hardly a political “dissident.” “There are weighty foundations to suppose that the trip [to Ingushetia] was in certain measure agreed with the president.” Vladimir Putin, Kovalev observed, “cannot but understand that sooner or later it will prove necessary to conduct negotiations, if, that is, we don’t want a war that will last for decades.”

Much of Kovalev’s interview was taken up with a defense by him of the proposition that President Maskhadov of Chechnya should be Russia’s chief negotiation partner. “The myth of the alleged powerlessness of Maskhadov and of his putative lack of desire to struggle with the bandits,” Kovalev observed, “has been blown out of proportion by Moscow politicians who, incidentally, expended not a few efforts to diminish his influence and to narrow the possibility of his struggling with banditry.” Thus, for example, following the first Chechen war, the “representative of the Kremlin,” oligarch Boris Berezovsky, presented two million American dollars to Shamil Basaev, allegedly to build a cement factory. (Berezovsky, it should noted, has publicly admitted to giving Basaev US$1 million.)

“Why,” Kovalev asked insistently, “was this money given to the adventurer Basaev and not to the President of Ichkeria [Maskhadov] who had been recognized by the previous Russian leadership?” Berezovsky also paid out large sums of money to liberate the victims of kidnappings by Chechen gangs, “thereby supporting that business” and destabilizing Maskhadov’s presidency.

Kovalev also raised the subject of the notorious Chechen kidnapper, Arbi Baraev: “He lives in Ermolovka, where he has taken a wife for the nth time. Not somewhere in the impassable mountains, but right next to Grozny.” Yet Baraev has to date not been arrested and put on trial by the federal forces.

“In May of 1999,” Kovalev went on to note, “Maskhadov sent an emissary to Moscow with proposals that the Russian and Chechen special services coordinate their actions in the struggle against kidnapping. What did they do in Moscow with this emissary? They locked him up in Lefortovo [Prison] for two weeks and then threw him out like a rag.”

The reason for Maskhadov’s alleged “ineffectiveness,” Maskhadov contended, was that neither the Russian government nor the Western democracies were prepared to enter into a normal partnership with him. “Moscow has always striven in Chechnya to have to do with puppets, even before the [present] war, and Maskhadov is an independent politician.” Maskhadov, Kovalev underlined, will, “according to international standards,” remain the sole, lawful president of Chechnya until democratic elections can be held. Such elections “cannot be held during a war.” Similarly, the Chechen parliament elected in 1997 will remain legitimate until new democratic elections.

Kovalev sought to refute the view that Maskhadov’s political influence has waned. To the contrary: “There are testimonies by authoritative observers that the mood among armed Chechens has noticeably changed in favor of Maskhadov. Psychologically that is easy to understand…. They are tired of this endless bloodbath and want negotiations, and they are prepared to entrust those talks to Maskhadov.” And Kovalev appealed to the Russian leadership: “Begin negotiations with Maskhadov; achieve at least some kind of movement, and you will see: his authority will rise like yeast.”

What about the oft-cited argument that Russia would “lose face” if it negotiated with Maskhadov? “That’s nonsense,” Kovalev retorted. “Before our eyes [Bislan] Gantamirov returned from jail to a cushy spot. He sat in jail for a bit, and now he is once again a hero [for Russia]. And [Akhmad] Kadyrov? He declared holy war against the Russians in the last war.”

In Kovalev’s opinion, it was clear that “negotiations can be successful only with the participation of authoritative Western intermediaries. Both because such a complex problem cannot be decided without the help of experienced negotiators…. And also because the Chechens do not trust Moscow.” Russia cannot untie the “Chechen knot” by itself without such Western assistance.

When, then, will Russia be ready for peace? “A year ago,” Kovalev recalled, “68 percent [in Russia-wide polls] supported the war to a victorious conclusion. Now it’s 45 percent. That is still a lot. When it gets to 25 percent, then perhaps something will change.”

As became clear during the previous 1994-1996 conflict, the much-assailed “holy fool” Sergei Kovalev is in fact a keenly intelligent and remarkably tenacious champion of the concept of a negotiated settlement, the sole feasible way to end a bloody conflict directly contrary to Russia’s national interests.