Washington, 11 September 1997 (RFE/RL) - On the eve of talks intended to define the Russia-Chechnya relationship, Moscow has taken two steps which suggest Chechnya is already far more independent than many in Russia suspect, but still far less than many in Chechnya want.
On Tuesday, Russian Federation Fuel and Energy Minister Boris Nemtsov signed a package of agreements with the head of the Chechen oil company Khozhd Akhmed Yarikhanov that are designed to allow oil to flow across Chechnya.
And then on Wednesday, Russian President Boris Yeltsin's press spokesman said that Moscow was powerless to stop public executions in the Chechen Republic. His comments came after demands by some Russian politicians that Moscow take action.
Both the conclusion of a bilateral accord on oil transit and the confession of Russian inability to enforce Russian law in Chechnya suggest that Moscow is increasingly willing to concede the de facto independence of the Caucasian republic.
But if the Russian government has been willing to admit to the facts on the ground in terms of action, it is not yet prepared to take the next step and recognize Chechnya as an independent country as a matter of law.
Until Russia does so, the Chechens themselves are unlikely to be satisfied, and no other country is likely to be willing to extend formal diplomatic recognition to a republic that even the Russian state now appears to recognize as in fact independent.
That raises some interesting questions: Just when is Chechnya or any other territory independent? Is it when the authorities on that territory exercise effective and uncontested power over its population? Or is it only when the international community blesses that status by extending formal diplomatic recognition of state independence?
The generally accepted answer in the 20th century is that a territory becomes an independent state when and only when a large number of countries recognize it diplomatically.
But such an answer is limited in its utility not only in the context of the 20th century but even more in terms of the broader sweep of history.
For many years, the United States and many other countries did not recognize the government of the People's Republic of China. Now, most of these same countries do not recognize the Chinese government on Taiwan.
But few would deny the actual existence of either country at either time.
And even limiting the question of independence to that of territories that seek to secede from a country that does enjoy recognition does not answer the question.
That is especially true if one takes a longer view.
Prior to the 20th century, many regimes had effective control of territories but did not enjoy formal recognition as independent countries.
Instead, they remained often for extended periods like Chechnya -- independent in all but name.
To the extent that the Chechens are ever willing to live with a status so atypical of the 20th century but so common in earlier ones, they may gradually win Russian and hence international acceptance of what they seek -- formal recognition of their statehood.
And to the extent that Moscow is prepared to live with the inherent contradiction of its position, the Russian government may succeed in reintroducing a pre-20th century model of independence for that Caucasian land.
Neither the Chechens nor the Russians seem likely to be willing to do that in the status talks that will begin on Saturday. But the recent Russian actions, coming as they do on the sixth anniversary of the Chechen declaration of independence from the USSR, suggest that both may be moving in that direction, even as they each deny the possibility.