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Russia: Chechens To Receive Economic Compensation

  • Floriana Fossato

Moscow, 7 April 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Russian officials today said that Chechnya will soon begin receiving economic compensations from Moscow. These officials also said that Chechen Muslim pilgrims will be able to fly to Saudi Arabia directly from Chechnya. Both measures appear designed to improve Russia's relations with the separatist republic.

The moves follow Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov's complaint made last weekend on the Russian ORT television program that Moscow continues war against his country through the means of an economic blockade. He also said Chechnya will not demobilize its forces, estimated at about 5,000 men, unless Russia signs a lasting peace treaty. Earlier Maskhadov had said that talks with Russia on future relations had come to a standstill.

Maskhadov's statements followed the appointment last week of Shamil Basayev as Chechen first deputy prime minister. Basayev was runner-up to Maskhadov in Chechnya's January presidential election. Basayev, who led Chechen fighters in many actions during the conflict with Russia, enjoys great prestige among the Chechens.

Basayev is, however, considered a terrorist by Moscow for having led the bloody hostage-taking operation in the Southern Russian city of Budyonnovsk in June 1995. More than 100 people died in that action. After the action Basayev became the most wanted man in Russia.

Many Chechens consider the Budyonnovsk action as a turning point in Chechnya's secession from Russia. Security Council Secretary Ivan Rybkin last week told Russian legislators that Basayev's appointment could jeopardize the peace process.

Russia and Chechnya have been negotiating about relations since Maskhadov's election in February. A decision on Chechnya's political status was put off for five years in cease-fire accords signed last year.

The Chechen leaders, including Maskhadov and Basayev, have insisted on full sovereignty for Chechnya. But Russian officials say they are prepared to grant only autonomy within the Russian Federation.

Ivan Rybkin was until last week Russia's main negotiator. It is not clear whether he will continue following his ouster from the position in the Security Council.

Maskhadov said during the weekend that he had rejected four draft peace accords presented by the Russian side last March because, in his words, they "undermined Chechnya's interests." Maskhadov also said that Moscow was trying to link economic aid to the signing of a peace accord.

But today the Interfax news agency quoted Russia's Nationalities Minister Vyacheslav Mikhailov as saying that the flow of financial aid to Chechnya's social sphere will start before the signing of a comprehensive agreement.

According to Mikhailov, peace talks are "a necessity for both the federal center and the Chechen leadership." Mikhailov said he did not accept Maskhadov's contention that negotiations are deadlocked. He said the talks would continue, adding that Moscow would start paying pensions and compensations for the war damages to the Chechens in order to facilitate the process.

Another issue that observers consider particularly important for the negotiations is the transport of oil from the Caspian sea shelf in Azerbaijan through Dagestan and Chechnya to Russia's Black Sea port of Novorossiisk.

A top Chechen oil official, Khozh-Akhmed Yarikhanov, has told the Itar-tass news agency that the issue is economically and politically important for the two sides.

Yarikhanov, who is also on Chechnya's commission for the settlement of relations with Russia, said at the weekend that the next round of talks between Moscow and Grozny may begin in the very near future.

Russian negotiator and Duma member Vladimir Zorin also expressed optimism over the weekend. He said he was confident Russia and Chechnya would find a compromise, "as it had happened in the past."

Rybkin said today that Russia's decision to lift a ban on foreign flights from Chechnya to enable Muslim pilgrims to travel to Saudi Arabia and visit the holy cities of Mecca and Medina was a "goodwill gesture." Itar-tass quoted him as saying also that Moscow would provide blank passports for the pilgrims and set up a special customs post at Grozny airport.

Maskhadov himself is said to plan a pilgrimage this week to the holy Muslim places. Maskhadov told a Russian news agency that he also hoped to hold talks with leaders of Muslim states. He said he plans to ask them for help.

As of now not a single country has recognized Chechnya's independence, although Islamic countries have expressed their support during the conflict with Russia.