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Can Chechen Talks Bring Peace To North Caucasus?

  • Liz Fuller

Exiled opposition leader Akhmed Zakayev says he is holding talks with the government in Chechnya

Exiled opposition leader Akhmed Zakayev says he is holding talks with the government in Chechnya

Representatives of the Chechen Republic Ichkeria (ChRI) government in exile and the pro-Moscow Chechen Republic announced on July 24 that they have embarked on consultations aimed at promoting national reconciliation in Chechnya.

But can this process bring an end to the ongoing fighting across the North Caucasus?

Speaking on July 24 at a press conference in Oslo, Akhmed Zakayev, who since late 2007 has served as head of the Chechen Republic Ichkeria (ChRI) government-in-exile, confirmed that he is holding "consultations" with representatives of the pro-Moscow Chechen Republic with the aim of promoting national reconciliation.

The conference followed two days of talks between Zakayev and pro-Moscow Chechen representatives, including parliament speaker Dukvakha Abdurakhmanov, who is very close to Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov.

The two sides had met for the first time in Oslo four weeks ago, and plan a third round of talks in 10-14 days' time in London, where Zakayev has lived since being granted political asylum in Britain in 2002.

Ivar Amundsen, the head of the London-based Chechen Peace Forum, mediated the two rounds of consultations in Oslo. He told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service that this week's talks were "a very constructive and positive dialogue" that the two sides hope will lead to the "reshaping of the political stability of Chechnya."

Amundsen said the talks are important because they have Kadyrov's backing and therefore, by extension, that of the Kremlin. This, Amundsen said, is an indicator that Moscow has finally acknowledged that dialogue is the only realistic approach to promoting peace, and that Zakayev is an asset that can be used in this process.
Zakayev clearly regards Kadyrov as a tactical ally in the fight against the militant "emirate" faction, which Kadyrov has vowed to eliminate at all cost

"This dialogue, which has been non-accepted by the Russian authorities until now, is suddenly accepted as the only realistic approach," Amundsen said.

In his statement to the July 24 press conference, Chechen parliament speaker Abdurakhmanov stressed that both Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin support the peace initiative.

Zakayev's Return?

Over the past 12 months, Chechen Republic head Kadyrov has repeatedly claimed to be in contact with Zakayev. He has hinted on several occasions that Zakayev is ready to return to Chechnya in some official capacity. On June 28, he set a one-month deadline for Zakayev to make up his mind. But Zakayev told RFE/RL's Russian Service that his possible return to Chechnya was not discussed in Oslo.

"We did not discuss the issue of my personal return or my employment. Those are only speculations, guesses, and interpretations by journalists and political analysts," Zakayev said.

Zakayev is a representative of the moderate secular wing within the government of ChRI President Aslan Maskhadov. He fought as a member of the Chechen resistance at the start of the 1999 war before leaving Russia, but Kadyrov has publicly exonerated him from charges of committing war crimes.

In February, General Aleksandr Safronov, who is President Medvedev's special adviser on international cooperation to counter terrorism, hinted that Zakayev might be granted an amnesty if he succeeds in proving his innocence in a Russian court.

In late 2005, Zakayev engaged in a heated polemic with radical Chechen ideologues, including Press and Information Minister Movladi Udugov, who even then rejected the concept of an independent Chechen state in favor of an Islamic state encompassing the entire North Caucasus, and who argued that resistance fighters should not be constrained by the norms of international law.

In December 2007, one month after then ChRI President and resistance commander Doku Umarov turned his back on the cause of Chechen independence and proclaimed a North Caucasus emirate that he claimed to head, Zakayev told RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service that what is needed above all is unity among the various Chechen factions.

In that respect, Zakayev clearly regards Kadyrov as a tactical ally in the fight against the militant "emirate" faction, which Kadyrov has vowed to eliminate at all cost. In an interview with Chechenpress in February, Zakayev said that today it is Kadyrov who is best placed to initiate a process that would lead to the consolidation of Chechen society and to the drafting of a political platform for defining relations with Russia that would be acceptable to all sides.

Chechnya Spillover

Amundsen on July 24 described the Oslo talks as being conducted between "the only two relevant factions" in Chechnya. At the same time, he stressed that Zakayev still commands considerable respect in Chechnya.

Both those statements may, however, be wishful thinking. Indeed, Kadyrov's desire to bring Zakayev home may be motivated in part by the desire to demonstrate that he does not enjoy any such influence.

What possible impact the talks between Zakayev and Kadyrov's emissaries might have on the situation on the ground is also open to debate. The ongoing fighting spilled over years ago from Chechnya to the other North Caucasus republics.

Many, if not most, of the young fighters in Ingushetia, Daghestan, and Kabardino-Balkaria are motivated by Islamic ideology. Even the younger generation of fighters in Chechnya may not recognize Zakayev as a moral or political authority -- if indeed they know who he is.

The Oslo talks are nonetheless of primary significance as the latest in a series of indications that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is rethinking his approach to Chechnya in particular, and to stabilizing the North Caucasus in general.

In recent weeks, Medvedev has signaled his support for acting Ingushetian President Rashid Gaysanov, who advocates a significantly softer approach than Kadyrov with regard to the North Caucasus resistance. Speaking at a Moscow press conference on July 7, Gaysanov argued that every effort should be made to persuade young fighters to lay down their arms, rather than kill them without mercy, which is Kadyrov's preferred strategy.

Medvedev has also approved as Dagestan's new Interior Minister the candidate favored by President Mukhu Aliyev. Aliyev has repeatedly questioned the effectiveness of indiscriminate reprisals by police against devout and law-abiding young Muslim men.

Many observers have concluded that such brutality is counterproductive, and serves only to alienate young Muslims and drive them to join the resistance. The new minister, a career Federal Security Service (FSB) officer, is seen as likely to break with that strategy.

Zakayev acknowledged in an interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service on July 24 that the violence has spread beyond Chechnya to encompass the entire North Caucasus. He argued that it cannot be stopped until "the two sides that are trying to defend their respective positions by force," presumably meaning Moscow and its designated leaders in the region and the North Caucasus resistance, agree to talks.

Whether he sees a role for himself representing the pro-Moscow leadership in such talks is unclear. Similarly unclear is whether, and under what conditions, Umarov would agree to such a dialogue. In a recent interview, Umarov said he did not trust any peace overture by Moscow.

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