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Russia: Analysis from Washington -- Politicians Approach A Formula For Chechen Independence

Prague, 2 February 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Advisors close to Russian President Boris Yeltsin are now prepared to recognize the virtual independence of Chechnya. But their willingness to do so is generating a backlash among other Russian officials who advocate the use of force to suppress the Chechens.

Last Thursday, Russian Security Council secretary Ivan Rybkin said that Moscow has offered Chechnya sovereignty and independence based on "interdependence" with Russia. He described such a status as associate membership in the Russian Federation. And he said that it would mean that no Russian troops would be stationed in Chechen territory.

In making this latest announcement, the Security Council secretary nonetheless repeated past Russian statements that Moscow would never agree to the complete independence of Chechnya. And he noted that "we can find lots of variations allowing us to maintain a small thread" linking the Russian Federation and Chechnya.

But these qualifications were undercut by Rybkin's own suggestion that Chechnya would enjoy a status much like that of Bavaria within Germany. Despite the autonomy that region has in the Federal Republic, Bonn has never committed itself to avoid stationing German troops there -- something Rybkin said Moscow was prepared to do in the case of Chechnya.

The significance of Rybkin's remarks were underscored by Yeltsin's decision last week to form a new interagency task force within the Russian Security Council and to appoint as its head Russian deputy prime minister Ruslan Abdulatipov, someone who has long advocated that Moscow be more forthcoming in its relations with Chechnya.

Not surprisingly, many in Chechnya and in Russia see all this for what it is, a search for some kind of fig leaf that will allow Chechnya to be independent while allowing Moscow to claim that it really is not.

The Chechen leadership is thus likely to continue to take a hard line on independence, viewing this latest Russian concession as but one more step toward full recognition of their status.

Indeed, Rybkin himself clearly anticipated such a response and sought to warn Grozny that his proposal was the best they could hope for. He cited unofficial polls showing that most Chechens want to maintain close ties with Russia, and he said he was "alarmed" by what he said was a decline in the authority of Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov.

But a potentially more serious reaction to this shift in the position of those around Yeltsin came from Russian interior minister Anatoly Kulikov. In an interview last week, Kulikov said that Chechnya should be declared a "rebel territory in which Russian laws are not observed" and that Moscow should be prepared to renew its military campaign against Grozny.

Such saber-rattling appeals to many in the Russian parliament and some in the Russian population. But there are both domestic and international reasons to think that Moscow would be very reluctant to restart the conflict.

Not only is the Russian population unwilling to support any new campaign, but Russian human rights groups have already denounced Kulikov's ideas. And foreign governments, however reluctant they may be to press Moscow to recognize Chechen independence, would certainly be opposed to any resumption of the fighting.

Reflecting those considerations, Rybkin himself dismissed Kulikov's proposals as unworkable. He said he was opposed to any use of Russian military force against Chechnya: "Evil leads only to evil, especially when a whole community or a whole nation is punished," he said. Even more contemptuously, the Russian national security advisor said that "many are writing reports like novels without traveling to Chechnya, without having visited it a single time for the past 18 months" -- a direct reference to Kulikov. And Rybkin concluded that "these lies should not reach the president's office."

As the Rybkin-Kulikov exchange shows, Moscow remains divided on how to deal with Chechnya. But the words of Rybkin and the appointment of Abdulatipov suggest that those closest to Yeltsin are now committed to finding a formula for Chechen independence that gives Moscow a plausible basis to claim that it has not in fact taken that step.

Whether that commitment will be sufficient to guide Russian policy and whether any such formula will satisfy the Chechen government now or in the future remain unclear. But the latest statements in the Russian capital suggest that Grozny is closer to achieving its goals than at any time in the past.