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Chechnya: Activists Say West Must Pressure Moscow To Start Peace Talks

Russian human rights activists say peace talks are the only way out of the Chechen war, which is now in its fourth year. At a conference this weekend in Moscow, activists urged the West to do more to push Moscow to the negotiating table. However, since last month's hostage crisis, Russian forces have stepped up their military offensive against Chechen separatists and negotiations appear to be unlikely.

Prague, 11 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Some 200 Russian human rights activists emerged from a conference this weekend in Moscow with a message for the West: Negotiations are the only way out of Russia's war in Chechnya, and Western officials are the only ones capable of pushing Russia to the negotiating table.

As it stands, Moscow does not appear inclined to negotiate a settlement to its war in the breakaway republic, which entered its fourth year in September. Analysts say following last month's hostage crisis, which led to the death of nearly 130 hostages, the Kremlin is even less likely to agree to peace talks.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, meeting yesterday in the Russian capital with a group of pro-Moscow Chechens, used the occasion to rule out negotiations once again. He went on to describe the president of the separatist Chechen administration, Aslan Maskhadov, as a "murderer" and "scum." "[Maskhadov] led the republic to economic collapse, famine, destruction of the social and cultural sphere, genocide against other ethnic groups in Chechnya, and heavy casualties of ethnic Chechens," Putin said.

Putin said he supports other means of restoring peace in Chechnya, such as organizing a constitutional referendum in which separatists would not be allowed to participate. The Russian president said there would be "no second Khasavyurt," a reference to the 1996 treaty that ended the first 1994-96 Chechen conflict.

After the meeting, the head of Chechnya's pro-Moscow administration, Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov, said a constitutional referendum would likely be held in March or April.

Sergei Kovalev is a deputy in the Russian Duma and the director of the Russian Institute of Human Rights. He told RFE/RL no referenda are possible while Russian troops are still present in Chechnya.

He said that despite the Kremlin's repeated characterization of the war as an antiterrorist campaign, the entrenched fighting in Chechnya is in fact a guerrilla war, something he said Putin does not understand. "What we have is a deadlock that we will never be able to overcome. A guerrilla war may ease, but later on it will intensify again. Then it may once again abate; you may even have the impression that it has stopped completely, but then it will intensify again. Such is the nature of guerrilla warfare. The only way out of it is through negotiations. You have to negotiate with those you are fighting against," Kovalev said.

Kovalev said Moscow should negotiate with the groups it is now fighting, rather than with the republic's pro-Moscow administration, which is largely powerless. Kovalev said Maskhadov is the only legitimately elected Chechen politician.

However, Kovalev said Putin will never be compelled to enter peace talks unless the West pressures him. "[The talks are possible only if] the West is ready to show the political will to stop these killings, to stop this horrible violence. And it can do it. Moscow is not so independent as to choose confrontation, serious confrontation with the West, when [the Kremlin] seeks good relations and even privileges in these relations," Kovalev said.

Other speakers attending the Moscow conference support Kovalev's views. Ruslan Khasbulatov, a former speaker of the Russian parliament and himself a Chechen, said only an organization of the stature of the United Nations can force the two sides to make peace. Other participants urged the European Union, the Council of Europe, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to take steps to push Moscow to the negotiating table.

Chechnya is expected to figure prominently on the agenda of the EU-Russia summit, which opened today in Brussels. About 100 people demonstrated today in the vicinity of the EU head office, demanding "restoration of peace in Chechnya." Police kept the demonstrators away and erected wire fences around the building.

The EU-Russia summit is taking place at the same time as a European Parliament debate on Chechnya. Speaking today in Brussels, Omar Khanbiev, the health minister in the Chechen separatist government, said his side was willing to begin negotiations with the Kremlin, despite their belief that the Russian government, through its actions in Chechnya, is a "direct perpetrator" of terrorism. "Even though we are accusing the Russian side, including Putin and the entire government, of being accomplices and direct perpetrators of terrorism in Chechnya, we are ready, for the sake of peace, to sit down to the negotiating table, although it is very difficult for us," Khanbiev said.

Khanbiev added that Russia seeks to avoid negotiations by saying Maskhadov is connected with terrorism. But this is "not a constructive approach to this issue," he said.

Khanbiev also pressed the EU to "take upon itself a political solution of the issue, in agreement with Russia."

Speaking at the weekend conference in Moscow, Otto Latsis, editor of the privately owned newspaper "Novaya gazeta," said public support of negotiations would be essential to pushing Russian authorities to enter negotiations. However, he said, any mounting public sentiment in favor of negotiations has probably diminished in the wake of the hostage crisis.

RFE/RL correspondent Andrei Babitsky has reported on the war in Chechnya many times. He said this combative stance may grow more conciliatory if Russian forces suffer severe casualties in the months to come. He said that both separatist leaders and officials from the pro-Moscow Chechen administration should take part in the negotiations. "They [the pro-Moscow Chechen administration and the forces supporting it] are also Chechens. Though they are branded as [traitors] by their opponents, they have also made their choice. I don't exclude the fact that the majority -- or maybe a minority of them, it's not so important -- are people who believe that Chechnya should be part of Russia. The opportunity to decide their future should be given to the Chechens themselves, and they themselves should decide what they want," Babitsky said.

Babitsky echoed the belief that no political solution is forthcoming while Russian troops remain in the breakaway republic. At the same time, however, he said Russia does not have adequate resources to achieve a decisive military victory in Chechnya.

Russia has already deployed some 80,000 troops -- nearly 10 percent of its military personnel -- in Chechnya. The actions of federal forces have come under criticism from rights watchers in Russia and abroad, with even the pro-Moscow Chechen administration protesting the intensive "mopping-up" operations now under way in the republic. Last week, Chechnya's only elected Duma deputy, Aslanbek Aslakhanov, said "civilians are the ones who suffer from the military crackdowns, rather than those at whom they are aimed." Chechnya's chief mufti, Akhmed-hadji Shamaev, said these operations involve robbery and abductions and only cause people to join the rebels in their fight against Russian troops.

Reports say that last week, Russian special forces dynamited a house belonging to one of the armed female fighters who took part in the Moscow hostage taking last month. The woman's family was given just a few minutes to evacuate their home in the Chechen town of Achkoi-Martan.