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Russian: Chechen President Wants Panel To Rule On Chechnya's Status

London, 11 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Chechnya President Aslan Maskhadov has called for the formation of an international commission of lawyers to rule on claims that the Caucasus country was never legally absorbed into the Russian empire.

Maskhadov made the proposal two days ago (Monday) to former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who hosted a dinner for him in London on the first day of an unofficial visit to Britain.

Maskhadov expanded on that proposal yesterday by saying that despite 400 years of Russian pressure, "there is not a single document to which anyone can point under which Chechnya became a part of the Russian empire."

He also said international commentators are wrong to speculate about the tiny Caucasus republic separating from Russia, because -- in his words -- "Chechnya has never been part of Russia."

He spoke at the Royal Institute of International Affairs about the 21-month war which erupted when Moscow sent troops into Chechnya in 1994 to crush its self-proclaimed independence. The war officially ended with the signature of a peace pact last May.

Maskhadov said the proposed panel of international lawyers should "examine documents which have been in existence since the earliest times of relations between Chechnya and Russia" in order to clarify what he called "the status of those agreements."

He also said that his government, pressing ahead with its drive for recognition, is to put greater emphasis on cooperation with international organizations such as the U.N. and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

This was because Moscow had failed to fulfill aspects of several agreements it has signed with Chechnya which included pledges to base their relationship on the principles of international law and to pay for war damage. He said: "Unfortunately, it's very difficult to make Russia fulfill the agreements that it has signed."

He said Russia sent troops into the mainly-Muslim republic because "it was trying to rebuild its empire and regain control over the territories which the Soviet empire has lost over the past few years. The Chechen people were one of the main obstacles."

He said: "The basis of Kremlin policy has always been to destroy enemies of the empire and to control and, if necessary, manipulate rebellious people as a guarantee of the stability of the empire."

Another cause of the 1994-96 Caucasus war was Russian army confidence that a surprise attack would bring a quick victory, summed up by former Defense Minister Pavel Grachev who said he would need "just two hours to conquer and destroy Chechnya."

He said Russia also hoped its "ruthless" seizure of Chechnya would "scare all other nations of the former Soviet empire from trying to follow the Chechen example by aiming at independent statehood." Moreover, he said the Russian Federation government had also been under strong pressure from the "powerful Russian oil Mafia which has its own greedy interests in the region."

He said more than 120,000 civilians, including 8,000 children, were killed in the Chechnya war. More than 300 towns and villages were bombarded, and 50 were totally destroyed, including cities such as Grozny, Gudermes, Argun and Shali. Up to 80 percent of the population lost their homes and were forced to become refugees.

Maskhadov said many Chechens believe that the wrecked capital, Grozny, should not be rebuilt and should be left in ruins as "a monument to the devastation and horror" of the war. He said the city "should be shown to visitors and tourists as an example of what it means when Russian constitutional order is exerted."

Maskhadov, who has led efforts for more friendly relations with Moscow, said: "We believe that this war taught a lesson to everyone, particularly in Russia, that the time has come for creating a new kind of relationship." He added: "We have never tried to humiliate Russia. It is a superpower, a big country, and it's on our borders. We are going to live with that country forever."

Maskhadov said the failure of the international community to support Chechnya after its independence bid in 1991 was "very painful" to Chechens, and has led to an emphasis on self-reliance.

He expressed confidence that Chechnya and the Caucasus region in general will attract inward investment because of its rich mineral resources, including oil and gas, and its key geopolitical location on the crossroads between east and west, north and south. He appealed to British business to invest in the Chechen region.

Maskhadov is to have talks with British officials about the cases of two British aid workers held as hostages in Chechnya since last July, but he will not be received by any government ministers.

The Foreign Office said this week that Britain does not recognize Grozny's declaration of independence from Moscow. Russia has warned states not to recognize this self-proclaimed independence, saying such a move would seriously harm ties with Moscow.

Maskhadov, who is traveling on a Russian passport, wore the traditional Astrakhan hat of the Chechen tribes of the Caucasus mountains (known as the "papaha"). He is accompanied by a Chechen delegation of 13 people. Today he will visit London's Imperial War Museum, give an interview to the BBC Russian Service, and attend a reception in London.

His host for the four-day London visit is a former treasurer of the opposition Conservative Party, Lord MacAlpine, who visited Grozny last year.