Neither the pro-Moscow administration in Chechnya nor the Russian military establishment greeted the news of the planned Zakaev-Kazantsev meeting with enthusiasm. Akhmed Kadyrov, head of the pro-Moscow administration in Chechnya, dismissed the planned meeting as Maskhadov’s “latest trick,” insisting that only “the procedure for disarmament” could be discussed. “There is no point in having these negotiations,” Kadyrov said. “I will participate in them if I am asked to, but will not go looking for an invitation. Maskhadov had no influence when he was president. And doesn’t have any [now]” (Izvestia.ru, October 24). Kadyrov’s skepticism was echoed by Colonel-General Anatoly Shkirko, who commanded the federal forces in Chechnya during part of the 1994-1996 military campaign and who participated in negotiations with the rebels. Shkirko said Zakaev was putting forward “nothing new” and predicted that the talks would be fruitless. “All of this is being done to enhance the image of the bandits headed by Maskhadov,” said Shkirko, warning that the rebels would deliberately draw the negotiations out in order to gain time to replenish their ranks and re-arm and win political points. He said that Kadyrov should lead the negotiations and that they should take place either in Rostov or Djohar (Grozny), but not in Moscow. Like Kadyrov, Shkirko insisted that any talks should only have one goal–“the laying down of [rebel] arms under a white flag, and an end to terrorist acts and shootings” (Izvestia.ru, October 24).
Anonymous Russian military officers who fought in both Chechen campaigns were even more blunt. “We, of course, do not have the right to comment on the actions of the president, the commander-in-chief, but negotiations with the rebels must not be repeated!” they were quoted as saying. “There is only one way to talk with them–destroying them on the spot!” Like Shkirko, these unidentified officers predicted the rebels would use the negotiations to re-group (Izvestia.ru, October 24). Even some of those in Moscow who welcomed the planned Zakaev-Kazantsev meeting did so on the assumption that it amounted to the rebels’ capitulation. Vladimir Kulakov, deputy chairman of the Federation Council’s committee on security and defense, said that Zakaev’s request for a meeting with Kazantsev was a result of Putin’s September 24 “ultimatum” to the rebels and that the meeting in no way marked the start of “negotiations” (RBK, September 24).
For his part, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, Putin’s aide and main spokesman on Chechnya, praised Maskhadov’s representative Akhmed Zakaev, who was a rebel field commander during the 1994-1996 war, as a “completely normal person of sound mind,” adding that there were no outstanding criminal charges against him. Yastrzhembsky confirmed that Kazantsev and Zakaev had been in telephone contact for some time but said as well that in the wake of Putin’s September 24 demarche the two sides had taken a “pause” to decide whether “to use the opportunity presented by the president’s statement.” Yastrzhembsky indicated that the two sides had debated over where to meet–in Moscow, Rostov or Djohar–but that they eventually agreed to have Zakaev travel to Moscow. Yastrzhembsky said the federal side welcomed the rebels’ agreement to dispatch Zakaev to Moscow and that his security would be guaranteed. Despite his more positive spin, Yastrzhembsky, like Kazantsev, said that only issues up for discussion were an end to the rebels’ resistance and their disarmament and reintegration into civilian life. Yastrzhembsky admitted that Maskhadov’s influence in Chechnya was “limited,” but said that part of the Chechen population saw him as its representative and thus that it made sense to see what Zakaev has to say (Izvestia.ru, October 24).
While it is hard to decipher the true motives of each of the opposing sides for setting up an initial meeting, it does seem safe to say that after two years of what the Kremlin has called an “uncompromising fight against terrorism,” something very much like “negotiations” are indeed in the offing. The Kremlin appears to have understood for at least the last six months that it cannot achieve a military victory in Chechnya. It has thus been trying to figure out how to dress up negotiations so that they are palatable to both its own hardliners and the public, which remembers Putin’s promise to wipe out the Chechen “terrorists” everywhere, even “in the outhouse.” If the Kremlin is lucky, Maskhadov will agree to help Russia save face and will thus somehow help Yastrzhembsky and Kazantsev portray the negotiations as an agreement by the rebels to lay down their arms and return to civilian life. It is doubtful, however, that Maskhadov and Zakaev will agree to play such a role or be able to do so even if they want to, given that the rebels’ rejectionist wing–including the influential rebel field commanders Shamil Basaev and Khattab–are unlikely to play along.
Meanwhile, in what may be a Kremlin attempt to lay down “covering fire” for the start of talks, Russian helicopter gunships reportedly carried out fresh attacks against rebel concentrations in the south and southeast of Chechnya. Sources within the federal military command in Chechnya were quoted today as saying that the attacks, which targeted rebel positions in the Vedeno, Nozhai-Yurt and Itum-Kalinsk districts and the Argun Gorge, destroyed several rebel camps along with small rebel units numbering five to eight fighters each (NTV.ru, October 25).
FIGHTING IN ABKHAZIA UNDERSCORES RUSSIA’S MULISHNESS.