As Russia's war in Chechnya enters its fourth year, support is rising for a political settlement to the conflict. Calls for negotiations were until very recently seen as almost treasonous in Moscow. But with growing public opinion -- and now a senior political statesman -- backing a peaceful resolution, analysts say the conditions for President Vladimir Putin to begin the process are better than ever.
Moscow, 25 September 2002 (RFE/RL) -- With federal soldiers carrying out brutal atrocities against the local population in Chechnya and taking daily casualties in their turn, support for the military campaign appears to be waning in Russia. Instead, for the first time since the war began, public opinion seems to be backing a political solution.
In a poll conducted in July by the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM), the country's top polling organization, 61 percent of those asked said they supported holding negotiations with rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov -- elected Chechen president in 1997 -- to reach a political settlement of the conflict. That number stood at 22 percent in 2000, shortly after the war began to huge accolades.
The shift in public opinion may be having a domino effect. Early this month, former Prime Minister Yevgenii Primakov -- a conservative who in the 1990s helped forge Moscow's hardening attitude toward the West -- called for a change in the Kremlin's official line. He said the government should hold negotiations with Chechen rebels with the aim of reaching an immediate cease-fire.
In a chapter excerpted from a forthcoming book published in the government newspaper "Rossiiskaya gazeta," Primakov writes, "It is obvious that without negotiations with [Chechen] field commanders, at least some of them, handing authority to the Chechen side to provide local government and create local security will not succeed."
Primakov's statements have caused ripples in Moscow, leading analysts to say that conditions are better than ever to convince President Vladimir Putin -- the one man who can effect a change in Moscow's policy -- to seek a political solution to the intractable military conflict.
Andrei Piontkovskii is director of Moscow's Center for Strategic Studies. He said support for negotiations by Primakov -- considered a political "opportunist" who is not likely to make unpopular statements -- may help affect the endgame in Chechnya. "While human rights defenders, and people like me -- who said from the very beginning of the war that it is bloody opportunism -- [supported a political settlement], it was not accepted. But when people who belong to the mainstream of the Russian political establishment tell that to the president, it can have a certain effect," Piontkovskii said.
The opinion is widespread. Glen Howard is executive director of the Washington-based American Committee for Peace in Chechnya, co-chaired by former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski and former Secretary of State Alexander Haig. Howard sees Primakov's call for negotiations as a "very positive sign" that Russia's nascent antiwar movement might be gaining momentum. "The Primakov statement is important because there's some belief inside Russia that Primakov is playing an indirect role on advising Putin on several foreign-policy matters. I do not know if that's true or not, but there's this belief and if that's the case, then Primakov's statements are even more important," Howard said.
But the path to a settlement, if and when it gets under way, will not be easy. Putin was elected president vowing to crush rebels whom officials call "terrorists" and "bandits." In one of his most widely publicized claims, the Putin said Chechen bandits would be "wiped out in their outhouses." Backing down from such a notorious claim with no loss of public standing will require considerable political delicacy on Putin's part.
Howard said the question of "how to get out of the war -- how to end it with some degree of respect and honor -- is open to debate. It appears to be the big obstacle for [Putin]: how to end the war in Chechnya without it appearing that he's agreeing to Chechen terms," Howard said.
But politicians are now backing Primakov's call, which is a significant change from just recently, when officeholders scored political points by voicing the official line that Moscow should never negotiate.
Nikolai Bezborodov is a deputy chief of the State Duma's Defense Committee and a member of the centrist Russia's Regions group. He told RFE/RL that Primakov's article deserves "serious attention and study." He said the military has done its job in the breakaway region and that it is time to move on. "The public has already begun to be worried by the question: 'Hold on. How long is all this going to go on there? How long are terrorist acts going to continue? How long will people continue to die? When will the situation finally begin to stabilize?' The public is worried by such questions," Bezborodov said.
Piontkovskii said it is now up to the president to take note of the signs. "For that, he needs to become [former French President Charles] de Gaulle. De Gaulle also came to power in France under the motto 'Algerie Francaise' in 1958. That's the French version of 'wiping out in the outhouse.' In three years, he concluded peace with the Algerians and left Algeria. Here it depends on the amount of personality. Let's hope [Putin] is capable of doing that," Piontkovskii said.
One possible face-saving measure is insisting on what has already been the official Kremlin line for some time: that the war in Chechnya is in fact over and that Russia has been victorious. Bezborodov said, "Knowing what situation we are in, considering that the armed forces have completed their tasks using methods of force -- when the bulk of the rebels has essentially ceased existing, or are broken, or have crossed the border into, say, Georgia -- I think that, on the whole, the proposal to Putin deserves careful analysis and I don't rule out that we should move in that direction."
Primakov's statements come after moves by war opponent and former Security Council chief Ivan Rybkin to press for negotiations. Rybkin last month met with Akhmed Zakaev, representative for Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov, for unofficial talks.
Both men have worked with Ruslan Khasbulatov, a former speaker of the Russian parliament, to spearhead the drafting of a peace plan approved by a conference on Chechnya held last August in Liechtenstein. The plan envisages special status for Chechnya within the borders of the Russian Federation.
But Khasbulatov told RFE/RL he is having "tremendous difficulty" in pushing his plan forward in Moscow and complained that the president lacks competent advisers to help him reach a viable solution to the problem. He also criticized the president for allowing the military to meddle in government policy.
So far, the only attempt at negotiation took place last year during a brief airport meeting between Zakaev and Putin's envoy to Chechnya, Viktor Kazantsev. The meeting saw no results, with the Chechen side refusing to accept the Kremlin's condition that talks concern only the rebels' disarmament and not Chechnya's political status.
It is far from clear whether such differences can be overcome anytime soon. Bezborodov said the government will not repeat what he calls the "mistakes of 1996," when Moscow pulled its troops out of the republic during the first Chechen war and concluded a peace settlement giving the republic de facto independence. This time around, Bezborodov maintains, federal forces will not leave Chechnya, even once Russia's victory is assured.