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Russia: Tension Mounts Between Moscow And Grozny

Moscow, 11 February 1998 (RFE/RL) - Chechnya's President Aslan Maskhadov was sworn-in a year ago on February 12. His victory raised hopes that relations between Moscow and the separatist North Caucasus republic would dramatically improve, after more than 20 months of bloody military conflict. However, one year later, Chechen and Moscow officials are growing increasingly impatient with the lack of progress in their talks.

Russia's Deputy Prime Minister Ruslan Abdulatipov this week said Moscow and Grozny are now beginning "real work" to overcome the tragedy of the war, but added that there are powerful forces in both Moscow and Grozny, opposed to any peace agreement.

Abdulatipov said today's first meeting of the Russian Security Council inter-ministerial commission on Chechnya will focus on guaranteeing security along Chechnya's border. Chechen border guards officials have said the republic is reinforcing its borders with neighboring Russian regions, particularly Dagestan. Chechen officials are not expected to take part in today's meeting.

Abdulatipov, without elaborating, said Moscow and Grozny should work out together a "double compromise" on the status of Chechnya.

A cease-fire agreement in 1996, and a peace treaty signed last year left the republic's status undecided. Since the withdrawal of Russian troops in late 1996, Chechnya has considered itself independent, but Moscow insists that the republic is - and shall remain - part of the Russian Federation.

Maskhadov last week recalled all Chechen ministers and agency heads from Moscow, and banned all flights from Grozny to the Russian capital. He accused the Kremlin of failing to meet its commitments under the peace accord that he and President Boris Yeltsin signed last May, including agreements on customs and on allowing direct international flights from Grozny.

Maskhadov also said his government might "be obliged to review whether to go on safeguarding" the 150 kilometers of pipeline delivering oil from the Caspian Sea to the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiisk, "if Russia does not honor its commitments under the May peace treaty and other agreements." More than 400 armed Chechen have guarded the pipeline since November, when oil started flowing.

Chechnya's Information minister, Akhmed Zakayev, has complained that the only agreement Moscow implemented last year concerned oil transit across Chechnya, only, he said, "because that agreement was advantageous for Russia."

The oil-transit agreement expired at the end of last year and, according to Russian reports, a new one has still to be defined. The daily "Russky Telgraf" yesterday quoted unnamed Russian oil officials as saying negotiations that had taken place between Moscow and Grozny at the beginning of the year did not have positive results, and a date for new negotiations has yet to be set.

The problem lies in the definition of the oil-transit fee.

So-called "early oil," or limited production capacity, from the Caspian started flowing November 12. Under the interim transit deal, a tariff of 43 cents per ton was established. Chechnya had demanded more than $2 per ton. Moscow insisted that 43 cents per ton is the normal transit fee for oil sent by pipeline across Russia, ignoring Chechnya's request to be treated as an independent partner in the deal, instead of one of the 89 'subjects' of the Russian Federation.

"Russky Telegraf" quoted the new head of Chechnya's oil sector, Shirvani Basayev, as saying Chechnya expects oil to start flowing again at a tariff of more than $4 per ton.

Economy and political issues are tightly connected in the strained relationship between Moscow and Grozny. And, Chechnya's Foreign Minister Movladi Udugov has said Chechnya's leadership "will be forced to take decisive steps if there is no breakthrough in the negotiating process in the near future." Udugov has insisted a Moscow-Grozny treaty, which would make clear Chechnya's status, must be concluded this year. According to Udugov, if a treaty is not signed in 1998, "we will not be allowed to do it in 1999," when parliamentary elections are scheduled in Russia. Russian presidential elections are scheduled for the year 2000.

The failed assassination attempt against Georgia's President Eduard Shevardnadze two days ago seemed likely further to strain Moscow-Grozny relations.

Udugov reacted angrily at first reports that one of the attackers was an ethnic Chechen from Dagestan. He blamed the attack on Russian secret services, aiming at isolating Chechnya and spoiling its relations with Georgia. Udugov said he does not rule out that the assassination attempt was linked with plans to transit Caspian oil through Georgian territory, a route established as an alternative to the Chechen one. According to Udugov, forces behind the attack "are try to prove to the world that the Caucasus is an unstable region and that the security of pipelines cannot be assured."

Udugov, as well as Georgian officials, including Shevardnadze, noted that "it is unlikely that a terrorist taking part in such an operation would carry with him identification papers." Udugov said it seemed more likely that the slain attacker had been killed by his comrades and the passport had been planted on his body.

No Russian reaction has followed Udugov's comments. The press-secretary of Russia's Security Council, Igor Ignatyev, in a telephone interview with RFE/RL declined comment. However, Ignatyev said harsh rhetoric does not help to create a good atmosphere for negotiations.