Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 179

Despite the upsurge in fighting in Chechnya, there is still debate in Russia over what President Vladimir Putin intended when he gave the rebels seventy-two hours to appear before federal officials and begin a process of disarmament. His aide Sergei Yastrzhembsky and other Russian officials have insisted that the deadline, which Putin laid down in a September 24 televised speech outlining Russia’s policy concerning the American-led campaign against international terrorism, was not an “ultimatum.” Yastrzhembsky also denied that the deadline was a prelude to a major military escalation (see the Monitor, September 28). At the same time, Russian authorities imposed a curfew on the republic and declared all of Chechnya’s mountainous regions “closed zones” (Kommersant, October 1). These steps could be interpreted as constituting preparation for a new military offensive.

There are also indications, however, that contacts between the Russian authorities and the rebel leadership are continuing. The Spanish newspaper El Pais reported on September 28 that Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Alvaro Gil-Robles had agreed to serve as an intermediary in setting up meetings between the Russian government and rebel representatives, “including people close to Aslan Maskhadov.” The first such meeting, which is to address ways to bring “an end to violence in the republic,” is set to take place in November under the Council of Europe’s aegis, El Pais reported (Vremya Novostei, October 1). Last week, Viktor Kazantsev, Putin’s representative in the Southern federal district, confirmed that he had already made contact with rebel representatives, while Maskhadov deputized the vice premier of his self-styled government, Akhmed Zakaev, to be his representative in talks with the federal authorities (see the Monitor, September 28). According to Russian and Swiss press reports, a group of Russian parliamentarians met secretly with emissaries of Maskhadov in Switzerland during the third week of August (see the Monitor, September 4, 10).

Some Russia observers insist that Putin’s September 24 speech was a real step toward a negotiated settlement of the Chechen conflict. During last night’s edition of Itogi, the weekly news analysis program on TV-6, show host Yevgeny Kiselev noted that in his speech Putin did not once use the words “ultimatum” or “terrorist”–which he and other Russian officials have routinely used to describe the Chechen rebels. Kiselev also said that Putin, by asserting that there were people in Chechnya who had taken up arms under the influence of “false” and “distorted” values, was for the first time stepping away from the official propaganda line that the rebels are simply mercenaries, terrorists and kidnappers with whom it is impossible to negotiate. By laying down the seventy-two-hour deadline–which looks at first glance like a very strict condition–Putin was, in Kiselev’s view, trying to “sweeten the pill for those who support… a war to the victorious end, to the last Chechen” (TV-6, September 30). It is interesting to note that last week TV-6’s owner, the oligarch and declared opponent of Putin, Boris Berezovsky, also welcomed Putin’s speech as a shift away from a hard line toward Chechnya (Kommersant, September 28).

Whatever the case, it is by no means certain that the two sides are genuinely sincere about negotiations or, if they are, that they can overcome opposition from hardliners in their respective ranks. There are other large hurdles, such as an apparent disagreement over whether Putin’s ultimatum meant that the rebels should disarm as a precondition for talks, which is how Yastrzhembsky is interpreting it, or that the talks should begin prior to rebel disarmament, which is the way Kakaev interprets it. It is also unclear what guarantees the rebels would be given were they to disarm, both in terms of personal security and a livelihood after being “reintegrated” into Chechen society (Vremya Novostei, October 1).