On Sunday, November 18, the Russian and Chechen separatist sides held their first publicized person-to-person talks in the more than two years of the current war. Akhmed Zakaev, a deputy premier of the Chechen separatist government, and a special representative of President Aslan Maskhadov, arrived in Moscow’s Sheremet’evo II Airport by charter flight from Istanbul and then sat down for more than two hours of talks over lunch with retired General Viktor Kazantsev, Russia’s plenipotentiary presidential representative to the Southern Federal District.
In an interview with the Prima news service (Tbilisi), Zakaev noted that technically he was not present on Russian soil during the talks: “I did not receive a visa,” he stipulated, “And I did not pass through either the customs or border guards. The meeting was held at Sheremet’evo Airport with the help of the Turkish side. The leader of the Turkish Liberal Party, Besim Tibuk, flew with me to the meeting. The meeting was held in the VIP lounge and lasted a little over two hours. Then we went to a plane accompanied by Kazantsev’s assistant and flew from there. We took a special flight to Russia which was organized for us by the Turkish side” (Prima, November 21, translated by BBC Monitoring, November 21). In another interview, Zakaev suggested that the well-known oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who currently lives outside of Russia, may also have played a role in helping to set up the talks. “We keep in touch and exchange opinions,” he remarked (Chechenpress.com, November 21).
In a statement made in Istanbul before his departure for Russia, Zakaev underlined that Russia had refused to include any mediation during the talks, but added that the Chechen side would nonetheless be working with the “active cooperation” of Turkey (Reuters, November 18). It should also be noted that, two days before the talks took place, President Putin during a call-in program hosted by National Public Radio in the United States had emphasized that Russia firmly opposed the involving of any intermediaries in talks with the separatists. “Chechnya is part of the Russian Federation,” he declared, “and it is our duty to resolve our own domestic problems” (Infocentre.ru/eng, November 16).
Asked by the Prima news service in Tbilisi if he had been offered personal security guarantees by the Russian side, Zakaev replied: “I think that statements from [Russian presidential spokesman] Yastrzhembsky himself on behalf of President Putin, as well as numerous statements from Kazantsev saying that he guaranteed my security were quite enough for my modest self. Especially as we took a special flight with the help of the Turkish side” (Prima, November 21).
During a November 21 interview with the separatist website Chechenpress.com, Zakaev related that he and Kazantsev had been personally acquainted since the time of the negotiations that had brought the earlier 1994-1996 war to an end. “Viktor Germanovich [Kazantsev],” he observed, “is a worthy and educated man.” Zakaev also stressed that he and Kazantsev had agreed “not to make public the details of our conversation.” Zakaev did, however, reveal that the need “to end the violence and create conditions for the return of refugees who are spending a third winter in difficult, inhuman conditions” were two of the subjects discussed. He also carefully distinguished the position of President Aslan Maskhadov from that of field commanders Shamil Basaev and Khattab: “The struggle of the Chechen people for the right to life is being headed by Aslan Maskhadov. As for Basaev and Khattab, I haven’t heard that they have declared their preparedness to put down their weapons.”
During a November 19 interview with Russia’s NTV, Zakaev credited U.S. President George W. Bush with indirectly helping to prepare the way for the negotiations: “You know,” he said, “Putin’s statement of September 24 has been received in two ways by Russian society: some see it as an ultimatum, others as a proposal to begin a peace dialogue. Over time, the second view has won out…. If the Chechens are mistaken regarding Putin’s celebrated statement, we are consoled by the fact that those who are mistaken include U.S. President George W. Bush himself, who, during Putin’s recent visit to America, publicly backed the Russian president precisely for his dialogue with the Chechens [that is, with the Chechen separatists].” During the NTV interview, Zakaev also stressed that the federal forces were in fact “not in control” in Chechnya. “They are in control in those locations where they concentrated,” and that is all, he underscored. “Maskhadov has greater control of the republic than the [Russian] forces do” (NTV, BBC Monitoring, November 19).
In marked contrast to Zakaev’s fairly upbeat assessment of the negotiation process, Russian presidential representative Viktor Kazantsev chose to play down expectations in comments he made on November 20. “Unless the separatists make concrete moves,” he warned, “further dialogue is meaningless.” In his opinion, Zakaev had merely offered “theoretical analysis of historic events of the last two centuries, slogans, cliches and schemes.” Kazantsev concluded that such a dialogue was “a waste of time.” “If our future conversations are purely theoretical, I do not think we need to meet at all,” he summed up (Strana.ru, November 20).
Kazantsev’s rather gloomy public comments suggested that the chances of a negotiated settlement were slim at best. Writing in the weekly Moskovskie Novosti on November 21, however, the aforementioned specialist on the North Caucasus region, Sanobar Shermatova, suggested that both sides in the negotiations were in misleading the public as to their intentions. “In the possession of the editors of Moskovskie Novosti,” she wrote, “is information which can elucidate the mysterious situation with regard to the negotiations. The choice of location and the secret nature of the meeting are explained not only by issues of security for the Chechen participant but also by the subject of the conversation.” And she continued: “Viktor Kazantsev conveyed to the representative of Aslan Maskhadov (whether orally or in writing we were unable to discover) the proposals of the federal side for regulating the conflict. It is curious that, in these proposals, the question of disarming the rebels is not touched upon. The plans transmitted to the Chechen side foresee several stages that take into consideration guarantees of security for the returning rebels, the possibility of their working in the structures of the executive branch [of Chechnya], up to and including their becoming ministers, participating in the future referendum on a new constitution presently being worked on, and participating in future parliamentary and presidential elections. This constitutes the essence of the proposals that Akhmed Zakaev is to bring to Aslan Maskhadov for discussion.”
“All of this,” Shermatova added, “confirms the suppositions already published in Moskovskie Novosti that the Kremlin is preparing a peace plan for Chechnya similar to that which was applied in Tajikistan.” Shermatova also predicted that future negotiations between the two sides would continue to be kept in strict secrecy up until such time as the two sides came to agreement or until the possibility of a deal was decisively rejected and the prospect of a return of the separatists to lawful existence within Russia scuttled once and for all.
It should also be noted that it is possible that the Chechen separatist side presented proposals to their Russian interlocutors during the November 18 meeting. “The Chechen side,” Radio Liberty’s Russian service reported on November 21, “prepared concrete proposals, the content of which has so far not been made public” (Radio Svoboda, November 21).
Given the strict secrecy with which the negotiation process is currently being shrouded, it is, of course, impossible to make predictions concerning the likelihood of an eventual negotiated settlement. It does seem clear that the November 18 talks constituted a quite significant breakthrough. Whether that success will be built upon remains to be seen.