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Russia: Yeltsin Boosts Caucasus Policy

Moscow, 11 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- As Chechnya's President Aslan Maskhadov continues an unofficial, but high-profile visit to London this week, after meeting Azerbaijan's President Heydar Alyiev in Baku, Russia's President Boris Yeltsin today made an attempt to boost Moscow's own Caucasus policy.

During a Kremlin meeting with officials and elders from Russia's north Caucasus republics, Yeltsin said he is "worried by the unstable situation" in the region, and by "the growing distaste that people show for local, as well as Federal officials." But, Yeltsin added that Russia is a great multi-national state, fearing no-one, from (U.S. President Bill) Clinton to anyone else."

Opening the Kremlin meeting, Yeltsin said he had "great expectations" concerning its results, and added that he hopes the Caucasus elders can give him "advice," during "open consultations," on solving problems of the north Caucasus. According to Yeltsin, there are in the region "extremists, trying to set (ethnic) peoples off against each other," with the aim of directing the fight "against authorities."

The Interfax news agency reported that Yeltsin met representatives of ten north Caucasus republics and regions (eds: the republics of Adygeya, Dagestan, Ingushetia, Karachaevo-Cherkessiya, Kabardino-Balkariya, Kalmykiya, North Ossetia, as well as the Stavropol, Krasnodar and Rostov regions). Only separatist Chechnya was not represented at the Kremlin meeting, and the talks did not appeared to focus on the situation in Chechnya. However, earlier today, Yeltsin consulted Russia's Deputy Prime Minister Ramazan Abdulatipov, who prepared the meeting with north Caucasus elders, for a discussion that focused largely on Chechnya.

The presidential press-service said Yeltsin told Abdulatipov that only dialogue and informal contacts with representatives of peoples of the north Caucasus will help create and strengthen Russia'a national policies for the north Caucasus. He said that "joint work to restore Chechnya is the best medicine to heal the wounds that remain after the military confrontation" with Moscow.

Yeltsin also told Abdulatipov, who heads Russia's State Commission for the Stabilization of Relations with Chechnya, that it is necessary "to begin the implementation of a coordinated program for Chechnya's restoration." Without elaborating, Yeltsin also said that the restoration task "is impossible without proper financing."

Russia has pledged to restore Chechnya's economy, ruined by more than 20 months of armed conflict with Russia forces, but Chechnya's officials have complained that help has failed to materialized.

Maskhadov said yesterday, in a joint news conference with Alyiev in Baku, that countries should solve their problems without outside "prompting," clearly criticizing Moscow's involvement in the Caucasus region - outside, as well as within - the Russian Federation.

According to Maskhadov, countries in the region - once part of the Soviet Union - should create a "common Caucasus home" and tackle their problems together. He said he was referring mainly to Chechnya's struggle with Moscow for independence, as well as to the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute.

Alyiev, who expressed satisfaction with the oil flow through a key pipeline that runs from Baku to the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiisk via Chechnya, promised Maskhadov that Azerbaijan will continue to provide humanitarian help to Chechnya, and help restore the republic's economy.

A cease-fire agreement that ended fighting in Chechnya in August 1996 left Chechnya's future status unclear, and the republic remains largely outside the control of Russian authorities. Chechen officials say they have de-facto independence, but Moscow insist Chechnya is, and must continue to be, part of the Russian Federation.

The on-going dispute has also caused diplomatic embarrassment ahead of Maskhadov's trip. London, like other countries, does not recognize Chechnya, and Maskhadov had his British visa stamped on his Russian passport, not on his Chechen one. While in Britain, Maskhadov will not meet British ministers, but he will meet top Foreign Ministry officials, to discuss the fate of two Britons kidnapped in Chechnya last Summer.

Abdulatipov today told the north Caucasus officials and elders, ahead of their meeting with Yeltsin, that "Russia is ready to reach any compromise with Chechnya, except on the status of the republic."

And Deputy Prime Minister Ivan Rybkin, who, in his former post as Security Council Secretary, was until recently Russia's top negotiator with Grozny, today said Kremlin and Chechen negotiators will meet again this week to try to work out a comprehensive treaty. Rybkin said a firm date and place for the meeting have yet to be decided, but he added that Abdulatipov will also chair a meeting of the state commission for stabilization in Chechnya this month.

The majority of observers in Moscow remain skeptical that the Kremlin's latest effort in the north Caucasus can bring the positive results for which Moscow hopes. North Caucasus elders do not hold any real power, and their influence on officials in the region is limited.

Moscow experts tell RFE/RL that concerted Kremlin efforts to address the war-inflicted, economic damage to Chechnya could prove a much more productive strategy to demonstrate Moscow's resolve in addressing the needs of the north Caucasus.