Asked to assess the current situation in the North Caucasus in the wake of last week's attacks by Chechen-led militants in Kabardino-Balkariya, Gross said "the whole region is in danger." He continued: "What we faced in the last 10 years in Chechnya, we could face in the next 10 years" in all the other neighboring republics. Gross said that he intends to raise during his next meeting with Dmitrii Kozak, Russian President Vladimir Putin's envoy to the Southern Federal District, the issue of what can be done to avert an increase in violence and ensure that the people of the North Caucasus can live in peace without the constant fear of violent attack by "Basaev's people," meaning the young men from Chechnya and other republics who flock to fight under radical Chechen field commander Shamil Basaev.
Chechnya Not Normal
Gross was dismissive of official Russian claims that the situation in Chechnya is reverting to "normal." "I think the situation is not normal and is far away from normalization," he said, pointing out that "we don't have a free, democratic society" in Chechnya, but one that is "broken," and that the population is "fed up with all kinds of violence."
He said the danger of repeat violence will persist as long as there is no effort to reach a compromise between the interests of the various factions in the conflict. In that context, Gross noted that an opposition party that does not share the views of the Russian authorities and which aspires to "build a bridge" between the warring sides (by which he probably meant the Chechen chapter of the Union of Rightist Forces) has been permitted to register candidates in the parliamentary elections scheduled for 27 November. Gross admitted that "they are very weak and it's a very fragile attempt," but "it is still an attempt," and for that reason "I have not lost all hope," even though the situation is "extremely difficult." At the same time, he said he is particularly concerned that "the Russian authorities...are relying too heavily on forces who are closer to [being] criminals than democrats." Gross made it clear later in the interview that he meant the so-called presidential guard headed by Chechen First Deputy Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov.
Gross said that he expressed these concerns during a meeting three weeks ago in Moscow with Kozak, and that even though "many in Russia are aware of the problem.... I have to say I sometimes have the impression that the Russian authorities are not aware that they have to do more, they have to be more engaged in a civil way...and that they themselves have to do things which today they delegate" to groups that have forfeited the support and trust of the population -- a clear allusion to the pro-Moscow Chechen leadership.
Asked what he thinks motivates the young men and women who are flocking to join underground militant groups, and whether unemployment and economic stagnation are primary factors, Gross admitted that this is "a very difficult question." He suggested that many young people do indeed opt for violence because they "do not see any future in a normal life, because the political and economic situation is so bad, they feel they have nothing left to lose." He also suggested that continued efforts to resolve the conflict militarily contribute to its geographical spread, because the fighters are pushed back into the mountains and from there infiltrate other regions of the Caucasus in an attempt to demonstrate that they are still a force to be reckoned with. "That shows that we need to look for political solutions that could integrate those elements of the resistance that do not choose...terrorist methods," Gross reasoned. He acknowledged that this makes the search for a solution "more complex, but that is not a reason to capitulate and not to do what we should have done earlier -- become more engaged in getting a real political solution" and trying to persuade the moderate elements in the resistance to dissasociate themselves from what Gross termed "criminal tendencies in their own camp."
No Longer Just A Chechen Conflict
RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service acknowledged that Gross has worked extremely hard to promote dialogue, noting especially the roundtable discussion convened under PACE auspices earlier this year (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 1 April 2005), but went on to pose the question whether of the roundtable format should be modified to reflect "new realities," meaning the fact that "it's no longer a Chechen conflict but a North Caucasus conflict."
Gross's response to that suggestion was equivocal: "yes and no." He conceded that it is now "a transnational problem, a transrepublic problem, a North Caucasus problem," but went on to point out that "all these republics are part of the Russian Federation and in this respect the mandate is still valid, because you have to speak to the point that we have to respect the integrity of the Russian Federation and we have to respect [the fact] that the politicians don't want" to enter into negotiations with "terrorists, it's not possible to reach agreement with people who are so brutal and who lost...their credibility." For those reasons, Gross continued, he does not consider it necessary to change the PACE mandate, although "we have to be aware that the focus is now broader, that it's not only Chechnya, the Chechen conflict now touches four, five, six republics." But the interlocutor on the other side remains the same: it is the responsibility of the Russian Federation, the Russian authorities, to find a way "to overcome this daily violence."
Gross said that in preparation for the second roundtable, PACE will send a delegation to Chechnya to gain a firsthand impression of, but not to monitor in the formal sense, the 27 November elections. Then, at a meeting in Paris in December, "we will think about how we can build up the momentum [and induce] people who are not used to speaking to each other, to meeting with each other, to come together to build this bridge I mentioned." He again refered to the participation of Russian opposition parties in the Chechen election as "a hopeful sign" and an indication that the roundtable format "still has a future."
Asked whether perhaps PACE should espouse "a more drastic approach" -- possibly even embarking on direct talks as the British government did in Northern Ireland -- Gross pointed out that the conflict in Ulster had been going on for 30 to 40 years, and that the British authorities did not embark on talks with the IRA as long as the IRA was still engaged in violence: "it was a long, long process during which the so-called terrorists also developed a political wing, and that political wing persuaded those who were armed" to lay down their weapons. In that respect, Gross said, the war in Chechnya is "at a totally different stage than in Northern Ireland when a political settlement was reached" there. He said he hopes "we don't have to wait as long as the British and the people of Northern Ireland had to," and said he is "ready to consider what we can learn" from the efforts to resolve that conflict.
Some Figures Hurt Chances For Resolution
Gross said he does not think it is as easy as his interviewer does to reach a solution to the conflict, and he continued: "Mr. Basaev discredited himself in a way that is unbelievable when you recall what he did in Beslan and how he talked about it," how he was indifferent to the fate of 300 children. Gross said it is "very difficult" to understand why Basaev was recently again named deputy prime minister in the government originally headed by Chechen President and resistance leader Aslan Maskhadov. "Such contradictions do not facilitate the task of [those of] us who want to bring people to the negotiating table," Gross added. He went on to say that "I am also very sad that Mr. Ramzan Kadyrov" was named to a comparable post in the pro-Moscow Chechen government, saying that both appointments are more likely to fuel further violence than to facilitate "political exchange." But, Gross concluded, despite such misgivings "we always have to keep the Russians on board, because you can't find a solution" to the conflict without them.
A slideshow look at the October 13-14 violence in Nalchik, capital of the Russian North Caucasus Republic of Kabardino-Balkaria.