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Russia: Chechen Envoy Says He Believes Putin Is Acting In Good Faith

The deputy prime minister of the Chechen separatist government, Akhmed Zakaev, says the rebels are ready to begin talks about an eventual disarmament with Victor Kazantsev, Moscow's envoy to the North Caucasus. But in an interview with RFE/RL's Russian Service, Zakaev said Moscow would be wise not to confuse Chechen separatists with the terrorists who masterminded last month's attacks against the U.S.

Moscow, 3 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin urged Chechen separatist fighters to end what he called their contacts with international terrorists. And he gave them a 72-hour deadline to get in touch with Russian authorities and begin the process of disarmament.

Victor Kazantsev, the president's envoy to the North Caucasus, was appointed to lead the negotiations from the Russian side. Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov said he would send Akhmed Zakaev, the deputy prime minister of the separatist government, to any such talks.

At the end of last week, after the deadline had passed, Kazantsev said he had spoken for 15 minutes by telephone with Zakaev. Both Kazantsev and Zakaev defined that first communication as a "work contact," staying away from using the words "peace talks."

Despite the initiatives, fighting continued in the breakaway republic, no arms were surrendered, and Maskhadov said the Chechen separatists had no intention of submitting to Putin's ultimatum.

Zakaev spoke recently with RFE/RL's Russian service about Putin's initiative in Chechnya and about his initial contacts with Kazantsev. He says that, so far, he has not began to seriously negotiate with Kazantsev. He says they've only discussed the potential sites for any future meetings and the way talks should be handled.

Though there has been little progress so far, Zakaev said he believes the terrorist attacks against the United States on 11 September have created a new atmosphere for peace talks and that he believes Putin honestly wants to end the conflict:

"After any turmoil, it is necessary to think. [So] after the tragedy [that happened] in New York and Washington, a thinking process is going on about [the new world situation]. For the first time in the past two years, [Russian authorities] evaluated, in a politically correct way, what is going on in Chechnya. And this comes not from an ordinary person, but from [Vladimir] Putin, the president of the Russian Federation. We don't think that [Putin's decision to begin talks] is just propaganda linked to the international changes. [We think he] wishes not only to stop, but to end, the secular conflict between Russia and Chechnya."

Zakaev says the Chechen conflict should not be linked with the fight against international terrorism, a connection Putin has been trying to make in remarks following the 11 September attacks. Zakaev says the origins of the Chechen conflict predate the concept of global terrorism.

"The Russian-Chechen war did not begin in 1994 or in 1999. It began very long ago. The Chechen conflict has already been going on for about 300 to 400 years, and at that time [the] concept of terrorism or international terrorism did not exist. And at the moment, to try to turn a political conflict into a terrorist conflict -- as has been done during the past two years -- is going to fail."

Zakaev says Chechens back the efforts of the U.S.-led coalition against terrorism and are ready to help in the fight, despite reports to the contrary:

"After the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, we fully backed the U.S. and its allies. We are ready to cooperate with the U.S. in its fight against terrorism. But I'm sure everybody noticed that after the American tragedy, somewhere in the Kurchaloysky forest [in eastern Chechnya, authorities] found a floppy [disk] containing a drawing of a Boeing [airplane] and some notes in Arabic. But it is just something badly planned by someone."

In the end, Zakaev says, some form of independence for Chechnya cannot be denied.

"The reason [why the second Chechen war began] is that up until now, it is not clear [what] the relationships between the Chechen Republic and Russian Federation are. For us, at the moment, independence is the only safety guarantee, not only for one or two [people], but for the all [Chechen] people."