Akhmed Zakaev, the deputy prime minister of the Chechen separatist government, has said the Chechen side is ready to hold talks with Russian officials in an effort to try to end the two-year-old Chechen conflict. Kremlin spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembskii and Moscow's appointed head of the Chechen administration, Akhmed Kadyrov, downplayed the announcement, saying the Kremlin intends to limit talks to the issue of Chechen disarmament. In an interview yesterday with RFE/RL Moscow correspondents Oleg Kusov and Francesca Mereu, Zakaev discussed the prospects for the talks.
Moscow, 26 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Last month (24 September), Russian President Vladimir Putin gave separatists in Chechnya 72 hours to begin disarmament talks. Victor Kazantsev, the president's envoy to the North Caucasus, was appointed to lead the negotiations from the Russian side. Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov appointed Akhmed Zakaev, the deputy prime minister of the separatist government, to represent the Chechen side in the talks.
The 72-hour deadline came and went with little notice. But since then, Kazantsev and Zakaev have reportedly spoken several times by telephone to decide how and where the dialogue should begin. An apparent breakthrough came earlier this week, when Kazantsev, in a television interview, said he thought the meeting between the Chechen and the Russian sides might take place in Moscow within the next 10 days.
Kremlin spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembskii and the Moscow-appointed head of Chechnya's administration, Akhmed Kadyrov, both downplayed the announcement, saying any talks would be limited to a single issue: Chechen disarmament. Kadyrov, in remarks quoted by Interfax, said Maskhadov and his allies -- by saying talks would cover a wide range of topics -- are "hoping to create the illusion of negotiating as equals." No substantive talks would take place, he added, until the Chechens have handed over their weapons.
Bislan Gantamirov, chief federal inspector for Chechnya in the Southern federal district, told reporters that he is likewise convinced that little will come of talks between the Russian and Chechen sides.
Zakaev, however, says he believes it is still possible to find a solution to the Chechen conflict. In a telephone interview yesterday (25 October) with RFE/RL, Zakaev described his recent conversations with his counterpart Kazantsev.
"About one month ago [Viktor Kazantsev] and I started our consultations about where and how our future meeting should be. The purpose of the meeting is to decide what the topics of any [future] talks will be. The talks will help stop military actions [in Chechnya]. Our consultations are continuing, and today I spoke one more time by telephone with Kazantsev. But up until now we did not reach a final agreement about potential sites for the future meeting and how it should be. In any case, we're working on it."
RFE/RL asked Zakaev whether the meeting would take place within the next 10 days, as was reported by the local media. Zakaev had this to say: "Yes, we may meet in the next 10 days or two weeks. I can't say exactly. But we are working in this direction. Our work and our dialogue are actively continuing."
Asked what the essence of any talks would be, Zakaev said rebel disarmament would not be the only issue up for negotiation, despite Kremlin statements to the contrary: "Unfortunately, there were such statements. Some are even talking about [a Chechen] capitulation. But I'd like one more time to point out that disarmament cannot be a precondition for beginning talks. This is because the Russian-Chechen conflict is not a military conflict, and consequently it cannot be solved with a military decision. For that reason, I think, it is not fair to talk about winners and losers. The Russian-Chechen conflict is of a purely political character, and the only accepted solution [to the conflict] is a political one. And a political solution implies [reaching] a compromise. Now we [Kazantsev and I] are working in this direction. [Aslan] Maskhadov, the president of the Chechen republic, said that independence is the only safety guarantee for the Chechen people. [Now] it is necessary to define the relationships between Chechnya and Russia. And I am taking all responsibility to make the following statement: There are no issues that cannot be solved during negotiations, if there is a political will. We will consider the exchange of statements in late September as the beginning of such constructive dialogue."
RFE/RL asked Zakaev what offers the Chechen side would like to see from the Russian negotiators: "President Putin inherited the [Chechen] war [from President Boris Yeltsin], and at the moment it is really important for us to solve a few major problems. First of all, [we would like] Chechnya to stop being considered a pawn in big political games. Unfortunately, beginning in 1991, the Chechen republic and Chechen people became the victims of some adventurers who caused the Soviet Union to fall. And after that, in order to reach their political ambitions, they announced that anyone could take as much sovereignty as they wanted and then they started bombing that sovereignty."
Zakaev was referring to remarks made by then-President Yeltsin following the collapse of the Soviet Union, when he urged various regions -- including Chechnya -- to exercise their right to independence. Russia went on to deny Chechnya legal independence while accepting its de facto existence. The situation simmered until 1994, when Yeltsin ordered federal troops into the region in the first Chechen conflict.
RFE/RL asked Zakaev if he believes Moscow is now pursuing peace in earnest in the region. He said: "I am confident that there are people who are responsible for what is going on now in Chechnya. They are Russian President [Putin] and the Chechen President Maskhadov. But political ambitions cannot bring back the lives of those people who died and are dying [in Chechnya] everyday. I think that, in this respect, there has been a re-evaluation of values. I really hope that in the near future we will be able to stop this meaningless slaughter."
RFE/RL asked Zakaev if any changes in Russian attitude are perceptible in Chechnya after the 11 September attacks, when Russia was quick to offer sympathy to the U.S. as another country that had suffered terrorism at the hand of Muslim extremism. Moscow has often painted the Chechen conflict as a terrorist issue, rather than a separatist one.
Zakaev had this to say: "There have been several changes. At the beginning, [Russia] beefed up its military forces in Chechnya. But things got [better] after the U.S. administration stated that they didn't think that the Chechen conflict was related to the fight against terrorism and that they did not change their position about that conflict. [National Security Adviser] Condoleezza Rice, in particular, stated the claims of the Chechen people were not to be confused with recent world events [that is, the war against terrorism]."
Zakaev dismissed claims by Russian authorities that Chechen fighters are linked to terrorists: "When the Chechen-Russian conflict began, the concept of terrorism or terrorist attacks didn't exist. What is going on now in the world and the U.S. fight against terrorism has nothing to do with the Chechen conflict. The Chechen conflict is a political conflict and the solution to it cannot be a military one, but only a political one."
(This concludes the interview with Akhmed Zakaev.)