Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 12

Sergei Yastrzhembsky, President Putin’s aide and main spokesman on Chechnya, said yesterday that although the federal government had ruled out the possibility of contacts with the Chechen rebel field commanders Shamil Basaev and Khattab, he could not do so with rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov. He said that Basaev and Khattab had the choice either of giving themselves up for trial or being destroyed. Yastrzhembsky added, however, that it would be “wrong” to “completely and forever refuse the possibility of contacts with Maskhadov” (RBK, January 16).

What is significant about this latest Yastrzhembsky demarche is not that he ruled out talks with Basaev and Khattab–no serious observer believed that was in the cards–but the fact that he and his superiors in the Kremlin felt the need to emphasize that the chances for continued talks with Maskhadov are not dead. While Viktor Kazantsev, Putin’s representative to the Southern federal district, met with Maskhadov’s representative Akhmed Zakaev one time last November at Moscow’s Sheremetevo Airport, Kazantsev’s deputy, Nikolai Britvin, said on January 14 that “official contacts” with Maskhadov’s emissaries, including Zakaev, had been halted. The reason, Britvin said, was that Maskhadov had not accepted the conditions President Vladimir Putin put forward last September 24 that the rebels disarm and that Maskhadov’s representatives were “insisting” on conditions “unacceptable for Russia.” Zakaev, for his part, countered that the Chechen side had not put forward any conditions and blamed the federal side for the freeze in contacts. Some observers said the federal side had decided to adopt a harder line because of recent military “successes,” particularly as a result of anti-rebel operations in the town of Argun (Strana.ru, January 14; see also the Monitor, January 16).

Yastrzhembsky said that Moscow might be willing to renew contacts with Maskhadov if the rebel leader “demonstrates a readiness to fulfill the conditions” Putin put forward last September. While not contradicting Britvin, Yastrzhembsky’s comments of yesterday seem to have been a deliberate, if indirect rebuke to Anatoly Kvashnin, head of the Russian armed forces general staff, who declared last week that there was no possibility for negotiations with Basaev or Khattab or Maskhadov. “There will be no more mistakes,” Kvashnin said, adding: “We have a strict position–no concessions to bandits” (Strana.ru, January 10).

Thus it would appear that the Kremlin, unlike some senior Russian military officers, would like to keep Maskhadov in a separate category from Khattab, Basaev and other more radical and Islamist rebel commanders and thereby keep the door to negotiations ajar, at least slightly. This may be due in part to pressure from the United States, which last week renewed public criticism of Russian actions in Chechnya for the first time since the September 11 terrorist attacks in Washington and New York. U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher spoke of “human rights violations and the use of overwhelming force against civilian targets” in Chechnya, and an anonymous State Department official specifically criticized the abuse of civilians during so-called “zachistki,” or antirebel sweeps, in Argun and Tsotsin-Yurt (Reuters, January 11; Chechnya Weekly, January 16; see also the Monitor, January 3, 9). In this regard, it is interesting to note that Russia’s Interior Ministry announced yesterday that it would no longer carry out large-scale “zachistki” in Chechnya. First Deputy Interior Minister Vladimir Vasiliev told journalists that such operations would be replaced by “targeted special measures” to include the participation of local authorities, including heads of the districts, oblasts or cities where the operations were being carried out, along with prosecutors, muftis and even village elders, if necessary. This, he said, would provide “uninterrupted control over the actions” of the security forces during such operations (NTV.ru, January 16).