Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 181

Sergei Yastrzhembsky, President Vladimir Putin’s aide, confirmed yesterday that the federal authorities have been in contact with representatives of Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov. There is no reason, he added, that these contacts should not continue. Yastrzhembsky told reporters that the seventy-two-hour deadline Putin announced, during a September 24 speech, for the rebels to contact federal representatives in order to begin discussing disarmament, had shown that there are rebels who want to “get out of this bloody game.” Yastrzhembsky said dozens of rebels had approached federal officials in response to the deadline and that “political contacts” had been made between representatives of Maskhadov and Viktor Kazantsev, Putin’s envoy to the Southern federal district. According to Yastrzhembsky, these contacts have thus far been by telephone only, with the two sides have been discussing “whether to meet, and if so, where.” He said that while there was no reason this “dialogue” should not continue, it was not yet clear whether Kazantsev would meet with Maskhadov himself. It is interesting to note that as recently as a month ago, Yastrzhembsky was insisting that only the prosecutor general would meet with Maskhadov to discuss criminal charges against the rebel leader (Kommersant, October 3; see also the Monitor, June 29).

Despite Yastrzhembsky’s comments, there is still much skepticism over Putin’s motives for initiating contacts with Maskhadov’s representatives. Some observers believe that Putin’s September 24 demarche was aimed at exacerbating splits within the rebel ranks. It is no secret that there is disagreement between Maskhadov and leaders of the rebels’ radical wing, including field commanders Shamil Basaev and Khattab, over Chechnya’s future. Maskhadov seeks a secular state, politically independent of Russia but with major economic and military links to it. For their part, Basaev and his allies seek an Islamic state, fully independent of Russia and oriented toward the Arab world.

Other observers, however, believe that Putin, in establishing contact with Maskhadov’s representatives under the cover of a harsh seventy-two-hour “ultimatum,” was testing the reaction of Russia’s political establishment, military command and society at large. Both the political establishment and military command have not fully recovered from the psychological blow of having lost the first Chechen military campaign (1994-1996). In addition, it is widely assumed that middle and high-ranking Russian military officers have a material stake in continued warfare in Chechnya, particularly profits from unaccounted-for military expenditures and the illegal sale of oil refined in Chechnya.

Whatever the case, the initiation of contacts between the two sides has thus far failed to reduce the level of violence in Chechnya. Yesterday, a mine destroyed a Russian armored personnel carrier in the center of Djohar (Grozny), the Chechen capital. One serviceman was killed in the blast and five wounded. According to one report, newspaper reporters and a correspondent from NTV television had planned to travel in the APC to observe an antiguerrilla sweep, but were prevented from doing so at the last minute by Federal Security Service officers (Polit.ru, Kommersant, October 3).