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Chechnya: Why Did 1997 Peace Agreement Fail?

Maskhadov speaking in Grozny in October 1999, at the start of Russia's second war (epa) May 11, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Ten years ago, the leaders of Chechnya and Russia, Aslan Maskhadov and Boris Yeltsin, signed a formal peace treaty in the Kremlin. It was hoped the treaty would end Moscow's war against Chechen separatists, which in fewer than 20 months left more than 80,000 people dead and brought near-complete destruction to the North Caucasus republic.

The May 12, 1997 agreement is surprisingly short -- just five terse terms of agreement under a broad opening statement affirming the desire of both sides to end their "centuries-long" antagonism and strive to establish "firm, equal, and mutually beneficial relations."

RFE/RL correspondent and North Caucasus expert Andrei Babitsky says the document was straightforward in its call for peace.

"The essence of this document is simple. It's just a document about ceasing military operations," Babitsky says. "It does not mention capitulation on either side, doesn't proclaim anyone the winner, and doesn't formulate clear principles for governing relations between Russia and Chechnya. The addressing of these questions was postponed. The most important thing was to denounce the war."

Setting The Stage

The treaty wasn't the first agreement signed by the two sides with the aim of making peace.

In 1996, Russian and Chechen officials signed the Novye Atagi cease-fire agreement, the Khasavyurt accords on bilateral ties, and an agreement on economic relations and compensation for Chechens "affected" by the 1994-96 war.

"Yeltsin handed over power, agreements -- everything, really -- to his successor. The war that Putin waged in Chechnya was much more merciless, brutal, and bloody than the war waged by Yeltsin himself."

The May 1997 peace treaty, however, was seen by many as the most important agreement by far -- not least because it included a complete rejection of use of force.

The treaty, Maskhadov said at the time, opened a "new political era for Russia, the North Caucasus, and the entire Muslim world."

But the treaty was as significant for its ambiguities as it was for its details.

One important aspect the text failed to clarify was that of Chechnya's status. Maskhadov -- who in January 1997 had been elected Chechen president in a ballot deemed free and democratic by the international community -- signed the treaty as the president of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria.

To some observers, this suggested that Russia, at least tacitly, was recognizing the secessionist republic as an independent state.

Silvia Serrano, a Paris-based Caucasus expert, says that ambiguity allowed both sides to construe the agreement in different ways.

"The document itself contains the possibility of different interpretations," Serrano says. "The independence of Chechnya was not recognized. However, the document made it possible, at least for the Chechen side, to interpret it as Russia’s recognition of Chechnya’s statehood."

Briefly, Peace

In the period that followed the treaty's conclusion, everyday life in Chechnya showed signs of returning to normal. Unemployment and poverty remained widespread, but cultural events resumed in the capital Grozny, and residents viewed the future with optimism.

This lull, however, wasn't to last long.

Ten years later, the peace treaty has no legal weight. In a constitutional referendum in 2003, Chechens formally declared their republic a subject of the Russian Federation.

By the autumn of 1999, Russian troops were back in Chechnya. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, the man soon to become Russian president, was vowing in soon-to-be-infamous terms to "wipe out" Chechen terrorists "in the outhouse."

The Kremlin said the new campaign was a response to a series of deadly apartment bombing in Russia officially blamed on Chechen separatists, as well as Chechen field commander Shamil Basayev’s incursion into Daghestan and self-declared creation of an independent Islamic republic of the North Caucasus.

Nearly eight years later, the second campaign has claimed as many as 100,000 lives, and has outlived hopes of a simple resolution.

So why did the 1997 treaty fail? Serrano suggests it may have been destined to turn out badly.

The treaty "can certainly be considered an achievement," she said. "However, one can always speculate about the extent to which the sides were sincere when signing this document, and whether conclusion of the treaty was based on some fraudulent motives."

Serrano says she believes Maskhadov was an honest broker in the negotiations. On the Russian side, she is less certain. At the time of the deal, members of Moscow's political community were publicly skeptical about the treaty, saying the peace would be temporary and that Russia would return to Chechnya in force.

Fatal Flaw?

Babitsky, however, sees no military conspiracy behind the failure of the peace treaty. The agreement was sound and could have achieved a lasting peace, he says -- if not for Maskhadov's failure to take advantage of the opportunity presented him.

"Maskhadov's weakness, his unwillingness to oppose those past field commanders in any way -- field commanders who led the criminal groupings that were active throughout the territory of the republic" was to blame for the failure to maintain peace, Babitsky says. "Another big problem, of course, was the fact that Chechnya remained a permanent source of terrorism, because from its territory, attacks were being carried out on the neighboring republics."

Chechen fighters cheering for Maskhadov(undated AFP photo)

For some observers, Maskhadov's inability to successfully manage peacetime Chechnya is explained in part by Moscow's failure to honor its 1996 obligations to deliver much-needed economic aid to help rebuild the republic. With poverty and unemployment widespread, Maskhadov was simply unable to prevent the spread of lawlessness.

Ten years after its historic signing, the peace treaty has no legal weight. In a March 2003 constitutional referendum, Chechens formally declared their republic a subject of the Russian Federation.

Maskhadov and Yeltsin, the two architects of the 1997 deal, are both dead. In their place are two leaders -- Putin and Ramzan Kadyrov, a former separatist and the newly inaugurated president of Chechnya's pro-Moscow government -- who have created a political climate vastly different from that which made the peace treaty possible 10 years ago.

Little Achieved

Looking back, Babitsky says the 1997 treaty was ultimately a failure on both sides.

"Now, when it has become clear that Maskhadov was unable to take advantage of the possibilities presented by this treaty -- in order to reach independence, in order to organize a proper life -- it's hard to call the [treaty] an achievement," he says.

"As for Yeltsin, he handed over power, agreements -- everything, really -- to his successor. The war that Putin waged in Chechnya was much more merciless, brutal, and bloody than the war waged by Yeltsin himself."

Chechnya, by some accounts, is now more stable than it has been in many years, and fighting between federal forces and separatists has grown more sporadic.

In its place, however, are widespread reports of rampant human rights abuses -- disappearances, torture, and killings -- at the hands of Kadyrov's private armed forces. Militant Islam has also continued to spread throughout the North Caucasus, threatening the stability of the entire region.

For many civilians in Chechnya, life continues much as it did before -- under a persistent cloud of fear and insecurity. To many, hopes of peace seem even more distant than they did in 1997.

(RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service contributed to this report.)



By Aslan Doukaev, director, RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service

LITTLE TO CELEBRATE: When the news came of the peace agreement in 1997, people weren't out on the streets singing and dancing. Although it was a glimmer of hope, there was very little to celebrate. It was the end of a bloody and painful war, which inflicted huge suffering and losses on the Chechen people.
My first thought when I heard about the signing of the peace agreement was whether this was finally the end of years and years of hostilities between Russia and Chechnya? Is this a new page in history? Or is it simply a ploy, a temporary solution to the problem? ...more

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