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Russia/Chechnya: Two Presidents Plan A Meeting -- Analysis

Moscow, 7 May 1997 (RFE/RL) - Chechen authorities are anxious to show the Kremlin that the situation in the republic is under control, on the eve of an expected key meeting between Russia's President Boris Yeltsin and Chechnya's President Aslan Maskhadov. No date has been officially set for the meeting, but Kremlin and Chechen officials say it is expected to take place shortly, probably after the May 9 Victory Day holiday.

Russian Presidential spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky said the two Presidents are expected to sign a political agreement normalizing relations between Moscow and Grozny, a banking agreement and an agreement on the oil industry. This last document, especially, is considered by observers in Moscow as a key element for the development of future relations between the Kremlin and Chechnya.

Russia is competing for a key role in the export to western markets of oil from Azerbaijan's rich off-shore fields in the Caspian Sea. One of the routes chosen for the transport of so-called "early oil," coming from the first phase of exploitation of the Caspian oil, goes through Chechnya. Moscow claims it controls the route, but Chechen officials have said no agreement has been concluded on the issue with Moscow. The security of the pipeline cannot be guaranteed without the cooperation of Chechen authorities.

On the successful transport of "early oil," depends a decision on control of a route to handle bigger, more profitable amounts of oil. Russia has said "early oil" will start transiting through the Chechen segment pipeline to the Black Sea port of Novorossyisk October 1.

Our Moscow correspondent observes that - seen in this perspective - a Yeltsin-Maskhadov meeting is needed shortly, to unlock an issue that has huge economic, as well as political, importance for both Moscow and Chechnya.

Russia's Security Council Secretary, Ivan Rybkin, held talks with Yeltsin yesterday to discuss the planned meeting. Rybkin said afterward that "differences that can be settled only by the two Presidents" still remain. But he added that Moscow is determined to show "goodwill." However, the accord awaiting signing is not expected to make any reference to the political status of Chechnya. A cease-fire agreement that ended hostilities last August postponed resolution of Chechnya's status for up to five years.

In what is considered in Moscow as a positive development, Chechen Interior Minister Kazbek Makashev yesterday said his forces have secured the release of two Russian journalists, Olga Bagautdinova and Aleksandr Utrobin, kidnapped in March. The operation marks a success for Chechen authorities. Kidnappings, usually for ransom, have become a common occurrence in Chechnya.

Many Russian officials, led by Interior Minister Anatoly Kulikov, had criticized Maskhadov and his administration. They said the existence of bands of armed fighters, acting both in Chechnya and outside its borders prove that the situation is out of the present Chechen administration's control.

A recent outbreak of violence in the North Caucasus has threatened to freeze the ongoing negotiations between the Kremlin and Grozny.

Chechen authorities say they are investigating claims of attacks and statements made by renegade guerrilla leader Salman Raduyev. Raduyev claimed responsibility for two recent bombings in the North Caucasus, and a fire in Russia's Far East.

Chechen authorities have denied any involvement in the alleged incidents, made their own allegations of involvement of "Russia's special services," and, all the while, questioned Raduyev's mental stability and referred to reports of the incidents as "hoaxes." Moscow authorities labeled the incidents "terror attacks." But reports on the fire in the Far East cited negligence of local authorities and hinted at a possible diversion to cover arms smuggling.

As the latest claims and counter claims have swirled around, officials in Moscow and Grozny continue their preparations for the planned Yeltsin-Maskhadov meeting. Perhaps Maskhadov summed it up best recently, as he urged a meeting with Yeltsin soon. The war, Maskhadov said, has been "frozen, but not ended."