The Rebels Call for Political Dialogue While the Kremlin Demands Surrender

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 7 Issue: 29

The unexpected death of the Chechen warlord Shamil Basaev, who was responsible for organizing ruthless terrorist attacks in Russia, has again initiated discussions about a possible dialogue between the Russian authorities and the rebels in the North Caucasus. On the eve of the G8 summit in St. Petersburg, the New York Times published an editorial calling for negotiations. The article called Ramzan Kadyrov, the pro-Russian Chechen prime minister, a Moscow-controlled puppet who could not provide a stable peace for the region. The New York Times proposed that the Kremlin start a dialogue with Dokku Umarov, the new rebel leader, and Akhmed Zakaev, the top rebel envoy abroad, now that Basaev’s death had brought an end to the main source of violence in the region.

It is likely that the New York Times editorial was a hidden message from the West to President Vladimir Putin. The situation in the North Caucasus was among the topics that were discussed during the G8 summit, which was held July 15-17 (Interfax, July 15).

At the same time, the Chechen rebels were also trying to nudge Moscow toward a dialogue. On July 13, the rebels issued a manifesto entitled “For Peace in Chechnya,” signed by Akhmed Zakaev. The tone of the manifesto is one of compromise: It says that the rebels are ready to make serious compromises and are even ready to discuss the issue of Chechen independence, the most sensitive question for them. “In view of the Russian aggression against our republic, we have always considered independence as the fundamental means to achieve peace for the Chechen people and guarantee their security,” the manifesto states. “If in accordance with international law, however, any other solution for peace with the Russians can be found for achieving the aforementioned goals, we are ready for corresponding negotiations” (Chechnya Weekly, July 14). The rebels tried to make the document a good argument to be used by the Western leaders, who were going to discuss the Chechen issue, the most painful issue for the Russian authorities, with Putin in St. Petersburg. By coming out with the manifesto, the rebels once again demonstrated their readiness to stop the war at any time.

The Kremlin could not just ignore the rebel’s peace declaration, especially when the Russian authorities had lost their strongest argument against conducting negotiations—Shamil Basaev. Being a member of the rebel government and a person associated with the horrors in Nord-Ost and Beslan, Basaev was a good pretext for the Russian officials to reject any talks, repeating again and again that they would never talk with the “Beslan children’s murderers.” Having lost the excuse from the political theater, the Kremlin has to somehow react to peace calls, especially under soft but firm pressure coming from the West. On July 15, the first day of the summit, Nikolai Patrushev, director of the Federal Security Service (FSB), appealed to the Chechen militants. “I propose to you to start negotiations before August 1 with representatives of the legitimate authorities of the Chechen republic or of the federal center,” he said. Patrushev called on the rebels “to leave gangs, to disarm and come to the people’s side under the guarantee of an objective and impartial investigation.” Patrushev stressed in his statement that after Basaev’s death the insurgents had a chance to return to “peaceful life,” adding that “this is a chance for all of us to avoid new bloodshed” (Interfax, July 15).

A spectacular show was put on by the Russian authorities following Patrushev’s statement. An hour and a half after the statement’s appearance, the Interfax agency reported that a “gunman from Dokku Umarov’s gang” had surrendered in Chechnya’s Achkhoi-Martan district (Interfax, July 15). That same day, Patrushev’s statement was welcomed by the Muslim religious leaders of the North Caucasus. Mufti Ismail Berdiev, the head of the Coordination Center of Muslims of the North Caucasus, told Radio Russia that “separatism will always suffer defeat.”

Ramzan Kadyrov also came out in support of Patrushev’s statement and suggested changing the deadline from August 1 to September 1. He explained this by saying that the insurgents needed time to gather and discuss Patrushev’s proposal (NTV, July 15).

At the same time, some people criticized the FSB director’s statement. On July 17, Moskovsky komsomolets published an article by the journalist Vadim Rechkalov, who is well-known in Russia for his close ties with the FSB. Rechkalov criticized the statement by saying that while ordinary FSB officers were heroically fighting against the bandits in Chechnya—dying, getting medals for bravery—Patrushev made polite appeals to the gunmen, inviting them to the negotiating table (Moskovsky komsomolets, July 17).

Clearly, the article by Rechkalov was not written on his own initiative—just like the statement of Ramzan Kadyrov to extend the deadline for the rebels’ surrender. It is widely known that Ramzan Kadyrov never says anything to the media without permission from the Kremlin. The article by Rechkalov and Kadyrov’s statement were parts of a well-orchestrated campaign to give added weight to Patrushev’s “peace” declaration. Between those who are criticizing the call for surrender and those who want to make the conditions for disarmament softer, the statement of the FSB director looks like a happy medium and the best option for a peaceful solution of the conflict.

In reality, while the rebels’ manifesto contains concrete proposals for Russian-Chechen negotiations, Nikolai Patrushev’s statement sounds like another ultimatum to the rebels. It does not differ much from the ultimatum that was issued by the Russian Security Council in 1994 before the first invasion of the republic. That time, the Kremlin also demanded disarmament and the surrender of “illegal armed formations.” In 2001, Vladimir Putin repeated the demand, and now Nikolai Patrushev has made a similar statement. If you look deeply into the history of the Caucasian war, you can see a countless number of such ultimatums to disarm and surrender. They have been repeated frequently since the time of the ruthless Russian General Yermolov, who led an anti-Chechen military campaign in the 1820s. Every time the Russian government—and before, the Soviet one—wanted to suppress the Chechen rebellion, it issued the same demand to disarm and surrender. The result of such ultimatums, however, was the everlasting bloodshed and endless losses on both sides. The Russian government managed to achieve real peace and stability in Chechnya only in 1859 when Prince Baratynsky, then the commander of the Caucasian corps, issued a declaration of political proposals to the Chechens. The declaration granted autonomy to Chechnya within the Russian empire. The Chechens could live according to Sharia law, and the Russian government promised not to interfere with their domestic affairs. Another uprising took place in Chechnya only when the Russian government failed to keep its promises.

Another attempt to achieve real peace between the two countries was made in 1996 and 1997, when a ceasefire and a peace treaty were signed by the Russian and the Chechen governments. These treaties were forgotten after the second invasion of Chechnya by Russian troops in 1999. Zakaev and other rebel leaders and envoys have always been trying hard to find a political solution to resolve the endless conflict once and for all. Nevertheless, real peace initiatives have repeatedly broken into pieces against a wall of hatred and aggression on the Russian side. It is impossible to ignore the lessons of history, which teach us that that peace in the North Caucasus, even for a short time, can be achieved only through an equal political dialogue and not through demands or ultimatums.