Is there no solution to the nine-year-old Chechen bloodbath?
Russian President Vladimir Putin declares that the only acceptable outcome is the one he seeks to effect through a puppet government imposed on the dissident republic through rigged elections. Why? Because every other political force in Chechnya is made up of "terrorists" who offer no solutions other than complete secession from Russia and a state based on fundamentalist Islam.
Hence, he concludes, there is no one to talk with and no basis for compromise. And Putin would also have us believe all right-thinking Russian political figures support this view. Thus armed, he is ready to push doggedly on with a brutal war that claimed the lives of 500 Russians in just one recent week and has killed some 200,000 Chechens -- a quarter of their population.
All these assertions by Putin are false. I know this because I twice participated in secret meetings between members of the Russian Duma and representatives of the only government in Chechnya's grim history ever chosen through reasonably fair elections -- the one headed by Aslan Maskhadov between 1997 and 1999. Sponsored by the American Committee for Peace in Chechnya, these unofficial talks were held in August 2001 in Caux, Switzerland, and a year later in Liechtenstein.
The first session brought together nine people, including, from Moscow's side, Yuri Shchekochikin, deputy chairman of the Duma's committee on national security, and Abdul Soltegov from the Duma's Chechnya commission. Maskhadov, who could not leave Chechnya, sent a team headed by his mild and intelligent foreign minister, Ilyas Akhmadov.
There was every reason to expect a hostile standoff. But it soon became evident that more united the two sides than divided them. Both realized that there was enough blame to go around and that everyone's hands were bloody to some degree. Both saw the war as being sustained by corrupt Russian officers who were reaping illegal profits from it and by the Russian security forces with whom they were in league. And both believed a solution under which Chechnya could have maximum autonomy while remaining part of Russia would work. On this basis they agreed on a number of practical steps to take in the coming period.
The Russians and Chechens were sufficiently encouraged that they met again a year later. Again I was invited to attend. This time the Moscow group expanded to include Duma member Aslanbek Aslakhanov, a highly respected general, an ethnic Chechen and today a Kremlin official on the spot in the Beslan schoolhouse massacre; Rustam Kaliev, special adviser to the Duma's commission on Chechnya; and two former speakers of the Duma, Chechen-born Ruslan Khasbulatov and Ivan Rybkin, who served as national security adviser to Boris Yeltsin. The Chechen delegation was headed by Maskhadov's able vice premier, Akhmed Zakayev, who, like Akhmadov, was then living abroad.
This time the group went further, agreeing on the outlines of a peace plan and charging Khasbulatov, a lawyer by training, with drafting it. They planned a Moscow news conference to disseminate the plan. Aslakhanov volunteered to go to Washington to brief key officials there. The group also called on Maskhadov to publicly condemn the invasion of Dagestan by Chechen Islamists, which had triggered the renewal of fighting in Chechnya. And in an effort to give Putin a further way out, the group proposed to focus on the corruption that was sustaining the war rather than criticize Putin directly.
The peace plan on which Duma members and Chechen leaders agreed included the same formula worked out a year earlier: Chechnya's continued legal membership in the Russian Federation, but with firm guarantees that it would enjoy the maximum degree of self-rule and autonomy. Maskhadov was quoted as saying he would accept this outcome as the best way of preserving the ethnic existence of the Chechen people. This lay to rest the red herring of secession about which Putin preached to grieving parents in Beslan after the schoolhouse attack there. In Liechtenstein the two sides differed only on such secondary points as whether Russian or joint Russian-Chechen forces should guard the southern border or whether the rest of Chechnya should be demilitarized.
What happened to these initiatives? When asked at a news conference about the first meeting, Putin flatly denied that it had taken place. When word got out about the second, the Russian White House said it was a scheme devised by Boris Berezovsky, a dissident oligarch, to discredit Putin, even though Berezovsky was in no way connected with it. In short, Putin brushed aside the proposals.
The Liechtenstein plan would still work today, and Maskhadov, while weakened, remains the only viable partner for negotiations on the future of Chechnya. He had nothing to do with the monstrous attack in Beslan and has denounced it as barbaric. Maskhadov is the only credible Chechen leader who champions the separation of religion from the state and favors modern secular education, even while respecting the Islamic faithful. In office he opposed the fundamentalists. Many Chechens backed his moderate stance. It is true that the inexperienced Maskhadov failed to reverse Chechnya's downward slide during his brief rule, but it is doubtful anyone else could have done better without assistance from Moscow or abroad, which was denied him.
But is Maskhadov a terrorist, as Putin claims ad nauseam? If he is, why would Britain offer asylum to his envoy and close associate, Zakayev? Why would the United States welcome another close ally, Akhmadov, as it has recently? Neither country is known these days for rolling out a welcome mat for terrorists.
It is no secret that there are terrorists among revenge-seeking Chechens and that there are radical Islamists among the desperate population of that land. But if Putin persists in painting all Chechens with the same brush of terrorism and Wahhabism, he will block the only remaining path to a peaceful solution and deny Russians and Chechens the only approach known to have the support of responsible figures on both sides.
The writer is chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University.