Rybkin: I did indeed write to Putin in late June 2002 with a proposal to put an end to the war and embark on peace talks. Even before that, in August 1999, speaking on Radio Moscow and on other Russian media at a time when it was still possible to discuss the issue publicly, I issued a warning that a new military venture could not -- by definition -- lead to anything good, that Chechnya is a part of Russia, and that patient negotiations must be conducted to resolve the problems in Chechnya systematically.
I pointed out that all countries in a similar situation, faced with separatism -- and separatism should not be confused with anything else --they all opted for peace talks in an attempt to find peace: between the Spanish Prime Minister and the Basques, and between Northern Ireland and [British Prime Minister] Tony Blair. The South Tyrol has been at peace now for 50 years even though there was serious unrest there.
I can tell you that even the unofficial data that give Russian military casualties as 3,500, even the approximate estimates of civilian casualties, they all go to show that the venture is just that, a venture, and it can only end badly.
Russia has lost [several potential] serious negotiating partners, first of all the first popularly elected president, Djokhar Dudaev, and then [Dudaev's successor] Aslan Maskhadov. The crisis has spread like wildfire throughout Chechnya and beyond its borders. The conflagration has reached Daghestan and Ingushetia and is still spreading. There is strict censorship throughout the media, and people receive at best only limited information about what is happening [in the North Caucasus] or no information at all.
People are living in poverty in the republics of the North Caucasus -- I stress, of the Russian North Caucasus.... The extremely difficult upheavals have attracted Russia's attention because it is impossible to conceal what happened in Ingushetia [in June 2004], the exodus [of Avars] from [the Chechen village of] Borozdinovskaya [in June 2005], and the terrible tragedy in Beslan [in September 2004]. All this is on the conscience of those people who bear ultimate responsibility for the situation in the North Caucasus, not permitting anyone to try to resolve it, imposing personal control and not letting anyone else come even one millimeter closer. I mean Russian President Vladimir Putin, Federal Security Service Director Nikolai Patrushev, and the heads of the special services.
It is amazing that a crisis of such magnitude should have arisen, everyone is searching for a scapegoat and no one wants to accept responsibility for what is happening. [Rybkin heaves a theatrical sigh.] The leadership is not capable of wielding its power [effectively].
All the arguments that were set out in the appeal of public figures in 1999 and then again in June 2002 have not lost their relevance. Whom to negotiate with is a different question -- that question should be addressed to those in power, they must think about whom to negotiate with. There are very few potential interlocutors left, and whether they speak Chechen or Russian they say very little that makes any sense, for of course there is a glaring absence of both the professionalism and the intellect needed to resolve and untangle the knots of bleeding problems both within Chechnya and across the North Caucasus.
RFE/RL: After 11 September 2001, Putin announced that in Chechnya he, too, is fighting international terrorism. Every year they give a different figure: 2,000 militants, 1,500, 2,500 killed. How do you account for the fact that however many Chechen militants the Russian army claims to kill, their number remains the same?
Rybkin: The fact that from year to year they keep repeating the same figure -- 2,000 militants killed would be funny if it wasn't so bitterly and grievously sad. The Russian leadership does not understand that by trying to force the Russian problem of armed separatism in the Chechen Republic into the Procrustean bed of the struggle against international terrorism, they are deceiving themselves and everyone around them; in the first instance us, the citizens of Russia, whatever our ethnicity -- and there are 130 ethnic groups in Russia.
It is absolutely clear and understandable to any unprejudiced person that we are faced with separatism in the south of Russia, and it is most developed and pronounced in the Chechen Republic. It is a different matter that this problem is exacerbated by a whole mass of problems that exist elsewhere in Russia and throughout the entire post-Soviet space, the Commonwealth of Independent States, and also in countries in the neighboring region -- by which I mean first and foremost the Middle East, where there is also unrest.
There are mercenaries and soldiers of fortune [in Chechnya], but above all we are faced with a people in revolt, when a gigantic group of federal forces -- 80,000, 100,000 men-- is powerless to do anything. And Russian military commanders go on reporting that over the past year they have killed 2,000 militants, who subsequently rise from the dead like the proverbial phoenix.
For that reason, it is necessary to engage in patient negotiations, as I already said, to negotiate for 25 years if need be, and systematically find a solution to the problem. And I say to the president: If you could convene in the Yekaterin hall in the Kremlin [pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Akhmed-hadji] Kadyrov, [Chechen representative to the State Duma Ruslan] Yamadaev, and [economist and former Chechen Deputy Prime Minister Khusein] Bibulatov, and others on your right hand, why could you not also seat on your left hand Maskhadov, [Chechen Deputy Prime Minister Akhmad] Zakaev, [former Chechen Interior Minister Kazbek] Makhashev, Khozhakhmed Yerikhanov [who took part in negotiations with the Russian leadership in 1995] and others? People in Chechnya will tell you that even if the latter are no better, they are certainly no worse than those on your right hand. But by opting for those on your right, you are driving the problem deeper, like an illness, and it is becoming incurable.
Essentially we are chronicling the whim of one or two people, above all the president and his close associates, who came to government from our northern capital [St. Petersburg] and who understand very little about the problems in the south of the country. The same situation arose in 1917-21, during the Civil War, because the Chilly North did not understand the problems or our Russian south.
That is the reason why our -- [I say] "our" because I have lived there all my life -- hills and mountains are so drenched with blood: because at the head of our affairs we have leaders who have forgotten everything, who have forgotten that the word "nachalnik" derives from the word "nachalo," and the man who stands at the beginning of the path should be able to see at least one or two steps ahead.
There should probably be some kind of physical pressure because, as I said, a very large number of soldiers of fortune have gravitated to this war; but we must try to resolve the question of separatism through negotiations, patiently, without saber-rattling, and without bating from the television screen all those people in Chechnya and elsewhere in the south of Russia who have taken up arms. But both the president and his closest entourage mock people from the TV screen. They themselves look around to check that their bodyguards have formed a ring around them, while people are dying not only in the south of Russia but in towns all across Russia, even in Moscow. This is the terrible thing.
People understand, they gnash their teeth, but they cannot do anything because they see that censorship has gagged the media. Only occasionally does some nugget of information find its way into the press in such papers as "Novaya gazeta," "Novye izvestiya," "Nezavisimaya gazeta," "Kommersant."
And the coffins keep coming from Chechnya, everywhere in Russian cemeteries they are burying the [war] dead, and above all in Chechnya.
There are thousands, thousands of dead. The Committee of Soldiers' Mothers of Russia has calculated that more than 20,000 soldiers have died either on the battlefield or of their wounds, or have committed suicide, and no one has calculated how many civilians have died.
RFE/RL: How do you assess [President Putin's] attempts at the "Chechenization" of the conflict? What results could it yield, and what have you observed so far?
Rybkin: I suspect the view exists that all aspects of the problem of trying to find a solution to the conflict should be handed over to the Chechens themselves. But the concepts, goals, and objectives the federal center identifies for itself -- although perhaps not very clearly -- keep changing. And very often they simply hand out weapons to people -- entire groups or clans -- who then set about trying to "solve" Chechnya's problems in their own interests in such a way as to enrich themselves and to augment their importance and influence. In a word, they take as their role model the Big Uncles, big-time Russian politics.
If this bloody Chechen war has allowed a lot of people, including our president, to land in elevated positions -- how can we allow this to happen? And why can't we take advantage of this?
And yesterday's young whippersnappers, who didn't manage even to obtain four or seven years of elementary education, suddenly acquire diplomas from some academy or other and begin to try to govern a complex republic and people like the Chechens, even though they can barely string together two or three words? [Editor's note: This appears to be an allusion to Chechen First Deputy Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov.]
This is a terrible misfortune for Chechnya, a terrible misfortune for Russia. This is Chechenization for you. The thing is, to paraphrase Pushkin, it's easy to deceive me, I am happy to let myself be deceived when I hear and see on television reports by the current Chechen leader Alu Alkhanov about how swiftly the reconstruction of Chechnya is proceeding and how much is being built.
Then my friends arrive from Grozny and tell me: "Ivan Petrovich, there are just two residential buildings under construction in Grozny. One is being built by Kazahstan's President Nursultan Nazarbaev for former [Chechen] residents of Kazakhstan who were exiled there as a result of the terrible tragedy, the deportation of 1944, and who have since returned to Chechnya; and the second is for bureaucrats, members of the Chechen government and Alkhanov's administration, plus the new elite, the new wealthy Chechens."
Obtaining compensation for destroyed homes is very complicated; time and again people are sent back to the end of the queue, and this has been going on for years. Meanwhile, others obtain compensation comparatively easily, and it's not clear what for.
This is extremely alarming, no effort is being made to resolve either the political or economic or social problems, and we have made very little progress in doing so over the past six years. We started the whole negotiating process in November 1996, when Aslan Mskhadov signed the first agreement with then Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin -- on social and economic problems. Then there was another agreement in May 1997 on economic issues and banking, because without solving these problems you cannot solve anything.
At that time, the government was unable to resolve those problems because there was so little money, but now the government is up to its eyes in money; [it has] 1 trillion rubles, $40 billion, the gold and hard-currency reserves amount to hundreds of billions of dollars, and yet the problems are still not being solved.
There are no jobs in the North Caucasus, especially in Chechnya, and it is from these utterly impoverished strata that one detachment of militants after another is being recruited, while at the same time a very small slice of the population, including in Chechnya, is becoming disgustingly wealthy.
That's what Chechenization amounts to: All the problems of Russia are reflected there in an enlarged, hypertrophied form as in a drop of water.
I will tell you one more aspect of Chechenization: those people, soldiers and officers, who have graduated from the school of war in Chechnya have not lost the skills they acquired there. Chechenization is impelling the authorities to try to resolve problems by using force. There are terrifying statistics that the Interior Ministry is trying to cover up -- the gravest, the most blood-curdling crimes are those that are committed by men who have served in Chechnya.
This happened in the Soviet Union after [the war in] Afghanistan, and in the U.S. after Vietnam. And we should have anticipated it.
RFE/RL: [Former Chechen President Djokhar] Dudaev did foresee it, he predicted that "they will go back and show Russia a thing or two."
Rybkin: Exactly! Dudaev himself served in Afghanistan; he knew what he was talking about.
RFE/RL: There is one further aspect to Chechenization. In Chechnya, it is understood as serving two purposes: First, Russia plays the Chechens off against each other, neighbor against neighbor, to sow distrust -- they detain someone from a family and tell them, "You have your neighbors to thank for this." And second, there is an expectation that at some point the war will end, perhaps there will be a war crimes tribunal, perhaps not; perhaps human rights activists will launch an investigation; and Chechenization is a way for the Russians to cover their tracks, in order to be able to say later on that "it was the Chechens who killed their fellow Chechens."
Rybkin: It's very difficult to deceive people; sooner or later they realize what's going on. Years may go by, but sooner or later what was a secret becomes common knowledge.
Of course someone will have to answer for what is happening now. And it is this fear of retribution that is driving the entire presidential team in a feverish search [to justify] a third presidential term for President Putin by amending the constitution and granting enhanced powers to the prime minister, so they can remain in power for many years, for 20-25 years.
But things are happening fast, people are waking up to what is going on, to the fact that they are being manipulated like puppets, that the Russian leadership is playing with the destiny of entire peoples, of the whole state.
The main conclusion I was left with after having conducted negotiations [with the Chechen leadership] over a period of several years was that no one was in any particular hurry to leave Russia. But my interlocutors naturally wanted to create conditions and guarantees that Russian soldiers' boots would not trample over Chechnya again and again. They were a very varied group of men, but they understood perfectly the need to separate the wheat from the chaff and find the one correct solution; and that one correct solution is the peaceful process of resolving the situation in and connected with the Chechen Republic.
But setting people, neighbors, villages at each others' throats, one type against another...cannot lead to anything good.
It's no wonder that the Chechens are seeking their fortune outside Chechnya. Today the Chechens are spreading out across the entire Russian Federation and beyond its borders. The data is classified but it reflects shamefully on Russia, because last year and the year before we broke all records for the number of people who are running away from us. And the overwhelming majority of the fugitives heading for Poland, the Czech Republic, the Baltics, France, everywhere, are Chechens. You can guess what frame of mind people were in when they left, how they must have felt.
Less than a year ago, I traveled to Berlin to speak at a festival organized jointly by the cities of Berlin and Moscow. I arrived very late and thought no one would show up, but the lecture hall was literally stuffed with people; people were even sitting in the aisles of this enormous amphitheater. Some of the audience were Bundestag deputies, but the overwhelming majority were fugitives from Chechnya.
That kind of mass exodus cannot lead to anything good, and has absolutely nothing in common with the struggle against international terrorism.... We need to be able to seek a negotiated agreement [with the Chechen resistance.] We did not bring entire nations under Russia's wing in order to annihilate them.
RFE/RL: What can and should be done now [to end the conflict]? Who in Russia today is the party of peace, and who is the party of war?
Rybkin: In my view, the party Yabloko is the most consistent in calling in its public statements for a peaceful solution to the situation in and connected with Chechnya; then the majority of the Union of Rightist Forces -- not all, unfortunately; and then our human rights organizations. In fact probably we should list them in first place.
All the other parties proceed from the purely Russian reasoning that "with luck the problem will go away," that soldiers' coffins will not be shipped back to Moscow. But I travel frequently throughout Russia, and I see that in Russian cemeteries alongside the so-called soldiers' graves there are also Chechen graves. This is a terrible misfortune for Russia. Seeds of enmity are being sown that will yield evil and venomous shoots.
People say to me that there is no one to negotiate with [in Chechnya]. I, for my part, say quite clearly that negotiating partners do exist, they can be found in the mountains [of southern Chechnya], in Moscow, and in Grozny, and outside Russia, and you can negotiate with the people who really have an influence on real developments in Chechnya.
And for heavens' sake, don't conduct negotiations just for show with those partners you have conjured up and appointed yourselves. They sit there like crows on a telegraph pole and nod their heads in a sign of agreement with your pronouncements -- pronouncements that have nothing in the world to do with real life.
And if you cannot find interlocutors with whom to negotiate a solution to this most grave and bloody conflict in the Russian North Caucasus, then resign, all of you, the whole presidential team, rather than seek a third term [for President Putin].
Then we will find negotiating partners and resolve this problem for the good of all the peoples of Russia, and above all of the Russian and Chechen peoples.
For RFE/RL's full coverage of events in Chechnya, see "Crisis In Chechnya"