Speaking at Columbia University in New York on December 9, President Vladimir Putin’s adviser on Chechnya, Aslambek Aslakhanov, reiterated the Kremlin’s policy of rejecting negotiations with rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov, calling him “just a banner” around which rebel groups rally. “Without him, they are only a group of bandits, but he’s weak as a president,” the Associated Press quoted Aslakhanov as saying. He also restated what appears to be the new line that Russian officials of Chechnya’s administration have been putting out lately – that Russia should focus on talks with lower-level rebel commanders who have not participated in terrorist acts. Aslakhanov, who was on a weeklong trip to the United States and Great Britain, flew on December 10 to Washington, where he discussed counter-terrorism issues with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. According to RIA Novosti, Aslakhanov said that the issue of extraditing Maskhadov’s emissaries Akhmed Zakaev and Ilyas Akhmadov – who were granted political asylum in Britain and the United States, respectively – was not on the agenda of his meetings in Washington.
Akhmadov, for his part, wrote in a Washington Post op-ed published on December 10 that the Kremlin must begin a “constructive dialogue” with Maskhadov and his government. “Moscow claims that Maskhadov has no control over the disparate units that make up the Chechen resistance,” Akhmadov wrote. “But in the past five years of war the Kremlin has not agreed to even an hour-long cease-fire that would test this assertion and permit Maskhadov to exercise political influence. Instead, the Russian government has put a price on his head; he is being hunted by the military and security forces.
“Russia and Chechnya must begin a confidence-building process, a necessary precondition for negotiation, by putting each other to tests as they did during the first Chechen war. Such measures should include cease-fires, safe havens, exchange of prisoners and humanitarian corridors. At this stage, effective and constructive cooperation in resolving questions at the technical level would create the basis of mutual trust upon which talks could be built to resolve political issues that, at present, seem intractable. This includes a genuine, mutual cooperation in the fight against terrorism and its causes. The first and most crucial step must be ceasing military activity by both sides. This would truly test Maskhadov’s control over the fighters in the field.”