Representatives of the Russian and Chechen governments met yesterday for the first face-to-face talks on Chechnya since the second war broke out there two years ago. The talks were welcomed by both sides, but as RFE/RL Moscow correspondent Francesca Mereu reports, violence for now continues unabated in the breakaway republic.
Moscow, 19 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Russia's presidential envoy to the North Caucasus, Viktor Kazantsev, met his Chechen counterpart on 18 November for a half-day of talks that may eventually pave the way to a settlement of the bloody two-year-old conflict in the breakaway republic.
Kazantsev met with Akhmed Zakayev, a representative of Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, who flew into Moscow's Sheremetyevo airport for two hours of talks before flying on to Turkey. Later in the day, at a press conference in Istanbul, Zakayev praised the talks -- the first such official dialogue aimed at ending the Chechen conflict since the second war broke out in September 1999: "The first and the most important point of the meeting is that both sides believed in stopping the war entirely through political and diplomatic means."
Zakayev also said both sides had agreed to hold future meetings, a decision he called "very important." He did not say when the next meeting would be held.
Russia's Interfax news agency quoted Kazantsev as saying that the meeting "went exclusively along the lines of the recent statement" made in September by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who urged Chechen separatists fighters to end their so-called "contacts" with international terrorists and disarm. Following Putin's remarks, Kazantsev and Zakayev were appointed to lead any potential negotiations. The two representatives had spoken several times by telephone, but yesterday's meeting marked the first time they had met for concrete talks.
Zakayev, who was accompanied to Moscow by the leader of Turkey's Liberal Democratic Party, said that finding a solution to the drawn-out conflict was imperative: "The events taking place in Chechnya cannot be hidden. What we want is to have a diplomatic and political solution to end this bloody war."
But even as Zakayev and Kazantsev discussed a possible resolution of the two-year-old conflict, outbreaks of violence continued unabated in Chechnya. Two Russian policemen were killed and seven others were wounded in a bomb attack on the Chechen capital Grozny yesterday. The Russian army reported 14 attacks and bomb explosions in a single 24-hour period. Two Chechen rebels were reported killed in an exchange of gunfire that erupted after an attack on a group of Russian soldiers southeast of Grozny.
Russian observers say the latest wave of violence may overshadow any gains the two presidential representatives may have achieved during their two-hour talks. Serious doubt remains whether Maskhadov has sufficient control over the republic's rival factions to effectively impose a peace process and disarmament.
Human rights groups working in the region say it is Russian soldiers, and not Chechen rebels, who remain the primary source of violence in the devastated region. Since returning to the breakaway republic in 1999, the Russian army has been routinely criticized by human rights group for attacks on civilians and other abuses.
Usam Baysayev works for Memorial, a Moscow-based human rights group. Speaking from Nazran, Ingushetia, he says violence has been on the upswing in Chechnya ever since the 11 September terrorist attacks in the United States -- an event he says gave Russia free rein to pursue its so-called "antiterrorist" campaign in the breakaway republic: "On 17 September, some representatives of human rights groups organized a meeting in Grozny. People gathered to express solidarity with the Americans. But then [the Russian military] started chasing people away from the meeting, and one officer said, 'You have no reason to be here -- now America is on our side."
Russia has routinely insisted that the Chechen conflict is a terrorist, rather than separatist, issue and has complained of the growing radical Islamist threat within its borders. After the 11 September attacks, Putin was quick to tie the acts to incidents in Russia -- most notably the 1999 apartment-block bombings that left some 300 people dead and prompted Russia's military return to Chechnya. In return, Western countries that had previously criticized Russian actions in the breakaway republic softened their stance on Chechnya.
Since then, Baysayev says, Russian soldiers have acted with near-absolute impunity: "[Before 11 September] the Russian military was more careful. They were afraid that public opinion would discover the murders they committed during 'cleansing operations.' They used to try to act secretly, to bury the bodies of people they had murdered in places that no one could find. In autumn, after the terrorist attacks in America, they started not to care about it anymore. Now they just throw people's bodies [into the streets] in front of everyone. After the attacks in America, they're thinking: 'Now the world is on our side and we're not afraid of anyone or anything.'"
Despite the professed progress made during yesterday's talks, Russian television commentators say the discussions may be too little, too late in a conflict that has ground into a seemingly endless cycle of misery.
Abdul-Khakim Sultigov, a Chechen political analyst based in Moscow, blames the two sides for having dragged out the issue of the talks for so long: "You have [in Chechnya what we call] the inertia force, [which makes a war continue]. An ultimatum is unlikely to stop it. And, to my great concern, nothing really important happened [in Chechnya] after Vladimir Vladimirovich [Putin's] ultimatum [in September]. I think that after an ultimatum of this kind there should have been progress toward [a peace solution]. But the Chechen rebels' side, in my opinion, wasted time deciding how and where the talks should begin. Do you think this is an important topic? [I think] the most important thing is that people die in Chechnya every day. Maskhadov's side should have acted faster to find a solution to this problem."
Maskhadov was a negotiating partner during the talks that ended the first Chechen war in 1994-96 and was elected Chechnya's president in 1997. But he has since become a unwelcome figure in Russia, and it is unclear what, if anything, he can do to speed the peace process.
According to official statistics, some 13,000 people have died in the two-year conflict. Thousands more have been displaced. According to Baysayev of Memorial, refugees continue to stream out of Chechnya at a rate of 1,000 people a day -- mainly into neighboring Ingushetia, where some 170,000 Chechen refugees are now living.