Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 76

Some top Russian officials indicated last week that the Kremlin may be seeking a political solution to the Chechen conflict. However, as the week came to a close, various officials, including President-elect Vladimir Putin, seemed to pour cold water over the prospects of talks with leaders of the breakaway republic.

On April 14, the Foreign Ministry issued a statement declaring that media speculation about a cease-fire in Chechnya and talks with Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov “cannot but cause surprise when the destruction of the bandit formations has reached a final phase” (Russian agencies, April 14). It was a strange statement, given that just one day earlier, Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov himself had said that Russia was already talking to unidentified Chechen leaders about ending the conflict, and that the efforts would lead to “concrete results” (Russian agencies, April 13). On several occasions recently, including an interview with Deutsche Welle radio, Maskhadov has called for negotiations without preconditions for ending the conflict (Russian agencies, April 10).

What is more, Ivanov’s hints about a political settlement seemed simply to be following the Kremlin’s lead. On April 11, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, Putin’s spokesman on Chechnya, said that the Kremlin was in contact with Maskhadov through intermediaries, noting that contacts with the Chechen leader had “always been made” through Ingushetian President Ruslan Aushev and North Ossetian President Aleksandr Dzasokhov (Izvestia, April 14). Yastrzhembsky’s statement seemed to mark a sensational about-face on the issue of negotiations with Maskhadov, given that, back in February, the Prosecutor General’s Office had charged the Chechen president with organizing and participating in an armed rebellion. Indeed, Yastrzhembsky himself had provided the justification for the criminal charges against Maskhadov, claiming that Russian intelligence had intercepted radio messages from Maskhadov ordering his men to “cut and trample” captured Russians (see the Monitor, February 21). On April 12, the day after he revealed that the Kremlin was in contact with Maskhadov through intermediaries, Yastrzhembsky suggested that the Chechen leader could be eligible for the amnesty offered to rebels who lay down their weapons (Russian agencies, April 12). The Foreign Ministry’s hardline statement on April 14 seemed to end such discussion, at least for now.

It is possible that Putin himself put the brakes on such discussion. His most recent statement on the issue suggests that he is in no mood for talks. On April 13, Putin said that while “restoring order and respect for human rights” was one of Russia’s priorities in Chechnya, both Maskhadov and his predecessor, Djohar Dudaev, had created “a criminal-terrorist enclave where lawlessness and suppression of human rights were allowed to rule unchecked” (Moscow Times, April 13). This would appear to pour cold water on the possibility of talks with Maskhadov, and to explain the Foreign Ministry’s sudden switch back to hardline rhetoric in its April 14 statement. As if to drive the point home, Federal Security Service spokesman Aleksandr Zdanovich reported Friday that Apti Batalov, head of Maskhadov’s presidential administration, had been detained in Chechnya and brought to Moscow for interrogation concerning possible involvement in “criminal activity” (Russian agencies, April 14).

The sense that the no-negotiations policy is once again ascendant was reinforced yesterday by General Gennady Troshev, the acting commander of the Russian military contingent in Chechnya. Troshev said that his forces were ready to continue active measures against the rebels, with the goal being their “total destruction” (Russian agencies, April 16).

The mixed signals concerning negotiations with Maskhadov may be connected to political jockeying in Moscow, among both the Russian political elite and the Chechen diaspora. According to one interpretation, the issue of whether to continue to prosecute the war or go for a political settlement could be key in determining whether General Anatoly Kvashnin, chief of the Russian armed forces general staff, replaces General Igor Sergeev as defense minister. In addition, pro-Moscow Chechen leaders like Bislan Gantemirov and Malik Saidulaev are likely to try and thwart talks with Maskhadov. They have reportedly been pushing the idea of making Ruslan Khasbulatov, the former speaker of the Supreme Soviet, Russia’s pre-October 1993 parliament, the temporary head of Chechnya (Izvestia, April 14).