It is paradoxical that every time the pace of military engagements increases in the mountains of Chechnya, plans are revived in Moscow for the peaceful regulation of the conflict. Chechnya is like an unhealed wound. So long as it is not too painful, the Russian leaders can pretend it does not exist. But as soon as it starts to bleed, people recognise that something has to be done.
During August and September the intensity of the military actions has not only increased, but the losses being suffered by the federal Russian forces have become impossible to conceal. First came attacks by Chechen fighters on border posts and positions of the federal forces. Then a transport helicopter was shot down near Khankala, and 118 service personnel were killed – the same number as died on the submarine Kursk. President Putin was forced to declare a period of national mourning, and after a few more days a new communiquÃ© on the helicopter was issued.
The upsurge of military actions reflects political and technical developments. On the political level, the crucial new element has been the success of the once-divided insurgents in again uniting around President Aslan Maskhadov. This followed the mysterious death of “Amir” Khattab, the leader of the radical islamic forces. Khattab was an Arab who had earlier fought in Afghanistan, and who evidently had links to the Saudi security forces.
The secular leaders of the resistance had always regarded him as a serious problem, suspecting him of setting out to divide and manipulate the Chechens. Nevertheless, they would scarcely have decided to deal with him on their own account. If word of such a conspiracy had leaked out, it would have provoked a disastrous internecine conflict within the insurgent ranks.
Whoever killed Khattab, the death of the Arab fighter proved extremely timely for President Maskhadov. From now on Maskhadov would have under his control all the armed insurgent units, irrespective of their political orientation. Having settled the question of how their actions were to be coordinated, the Chechens started operating much more effectively. Meanwhile, they had managed to acquire substantial quantities of anti-aircraft weapons, which soon made an impact on the course of the campaign.
The same is now occurring in Chechnya as happened in Afghanistan fifteen years ago. There, the Soviet forces were incapable of crushing the resistance, but neither could the insurgents gain the upper hand over a regular army, above all because of the latter’s superiority in the air. The turning-point came when portable anti-aircraft weapons systems arrived on the scene, and helicopters ceased to be invulnerable.
The only difference is that in Afghanistan the American anti-aircraft rockets were provided through clandestine channels, while Russian anti-aircraft systems are brought to the fighters in Chechnya directly from the stores of the Russian army – provided money is available. The creation of a unified command has allowed the Chechen insurgents to strengthen their finances as well. The result has promptly become apparent on the battlefield.
Simultaneously with the news of the losses, reports reached Moscow of unofficial talks which Russian politicians had held in Liechtenstein with Akhmed Zakaev, the representative of the Chechen president in Western Europe. The Russian delegation included deputies to the State Duma; its highest-placed member was Ivan Rybkin, who represented Russia at the talks which brought an end to the first Chechnya war. The talks in Liechtenstein could mark the beginning of a peace process, or could represent yet another inconclusive meeting. The representatives of the Russian side did not have an official mandate. Even if their initiative was coordinated “at the top level”, this changed nothing; in formal terms, the Kremlin knew nothing of the meeting, and could reject any plans out of hand. Meanwhile, our official leadership continues to call into question the authority of Maskhadov and his representatives.
But if Maskhadov cannot represent the Chechens, who can? For three years the Kremlin has done everything it can to block the activity on Chechen territory of any organs or structures that might democratically represent the interests of the population on the scale of the entire republic. In Nazrani a year ago a Chechen anti-war congress, delegates to which had been democratically elected in all regions of Chechnya, was forcibly dispersed.
The delegates managed to adopt a peace declaration which pledged “unconditional adherence to peace and to the norms of international law as set down in the documents of the United Nations Organisation and the Council of Europe.” Condemning terrorism, the congress declared that the official organs of the Chechen republic had had nothing to do with the explosions that took place in 1999 in apartment buildings in Moscow, Volgodonsk and Buynaksk, and expressed the conviction that Chechens in general had played no part in the acts of terrorism that preceded the new war.
The congress was in no sense a “pro-Maskhadov” gathering. While expressing their “belief in the legitimacy of President Aslan Maskhadov and of the Parliament of the Chechen Republic”, the delegates at the same time condemned Maskhadov’s policies, stating that the president had “failed to ensure respect for the constitutional rights of the citizens of the Chechen Republic”. The active participants in the congress were for the most part Chechens oriented toward Russian culture, and with no wish to sever their links with Russia. Unlike the islamists and nationalists, this sector of Chechen society fears that if the republic were to isolate itself from Russia, it would turn into a “new Afghanistan”.
Even among these Chechens, however, the federal forces evoke nothing but hostility. The congress insisted that a solution to the problems of security and of law and order had to be found within the framework of the Chechen constitution, and in such a way that Chechen society played the decisive role in events. The status of the republic should be determined by “a referendum under international supervision”. The road to peace lay through talks between Maskhadov and the Russian authorities, and also through reconciliation between Chechens and the consolidation of the nation.
The problem faced by the Russian authorities is that they cannot allow any referendum to take place in Chechnya. The more energetically the federal forces impose their “constitutional order” in the republic, the greater the hatred they arouse, and consequently, the less their chances of victory in a referendum. Nevertheless, there is a road to a peaceful resolution. It does not lie in a deal struck between the Russian and Chechen elites, but through democratic procedures. The talks in Liechtenstein represent a new attempt at such an elite agreement.
What failed in the years from 1996 to 1999 was not the peace process, but the politics of collusion, of behind-the-scenes talks and of ambiguous agreements between Moscow and Grozny. Chechnya needs a halt to military operations, but a no less vital need is for the self-organisation of society – the only way in which the “field commanders” can be put in their place. This is obviously impossible under the conditions of military hostilities. Peace in Chechnya, however, is not a short-term matter. Even after a cease-fire the peace process will continue for months, and perhaps years, before a definitive settlement is reached. A whole mountain of problems has accumulated.
There is not only the notorious question of the status of the republic (this, moreover, cannot be reduced simply to the approving of a juridical formula by the two sides). The problem is one of security, of the return of refugees (including Russian-speaking ones), of reconstruction, of the economic system, of dealing with corruption, of providing transport and pensions, and so forth. Irrespective of whether we declare the republic independent, whether we leave it within the Russian Federation or find a compromise (moderate Chechens speak of a “protectorate”), comprehensive solutions must be found to all these problems,
The trouble is that attempting to solve these problems without the participation of Chechen society is pointless. Meanwhile, the new plans for a settlement concentrate on military-political questions: whether or not to recognise Maskhadov, whether to withdraw the troops, and what to do with Kadyrov and his administration. The problem, of course, is not about the guarantees Moscow should give Maskhadov, and what it should receive in return. The problem is about what kind of Chechnya will result from the process.
No peace settlement will work unless its basic principle is the creating of the conditions for a democratic process in the republic. It is not a matter of replacing the dictatorship of the federal authorities with a “democracy of the fighters”, as existed between 1996 and 1999. What is required is a genuine representation of all the forces that are active in the republic, irrespective of whose side they were on during the conflict.
A few days ago representatives of the Chechen anti-war congress declared in Moscow that they were preparing to hold a second congress. This political initiative from below is becoming a counterweight to the deal in Liechtenstein. Among the Chechen activists in Moscow, however, there is no agreement as to how democratic and representative the congress will be, especially in its new embodiment. The delegates in 2001 were elected by all Chechnya, including the refugee camps, but this time there is a risk that the congress will be controlled by a small group headed by Salambek Maigov.
On the whole, there is no cause as yet for particular optimism. The road to peace and democracy in Chechnya will be long and difficult. Nevertheless, an end to the war is becoming a real prospect. The question is not whether the slaughter in Chechnya will cease, but what sort of republic will emerge from the bloodshed. It is around this that the fundamental struggle will now be acted out.