Russian President-elect Vladimir Putin is searching for a political exit from the deepening quagmire of Chechnya. But analysts warn that the seven-month war may have hopelessly undermined his only credible negotiating partner, elected Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov.
Both sides have been putting out peace feelers. On Friday, Mr. Maskhadov announced, from his hiding place somewhere in the southern mountains of Chechnya, that he has ordered rebel forces to cease operations while he negotiates with the Kremlin.
"The relative calm which has broken out on the front line came about because I gave the order unilaterally to suspend military action," Maskhadov said in an interview with the Moscow daily Kommersant. "This was part of a plan for a peaceful settlement, proposed by me to Moscow."
Reports from Chechnya suggested fighting has indeed diminished over recent days, despite sporadic clashes.
"We are obeying the president's orders, but if the aggressors are attacking we are forced to defend ourselves," Shamil Basayev, a leading Chechen field commander, was quoted saying Saturday on a rebel-run Web site, www.kavkaz.org.
"The rebels are licking their wounds, summoning strength and gathering the bandit breed from all over Chechnya," the commander of Russian troops in the North Caucasus, Gen. Gennady Troshev, told the official ITAR-Tass agency. "The bandits are dispersed, but some of them are trying to concentrate."
On Friday, Mr. Putin told a meeting of the Kremlin Security Council that he had sent a letter to Maskhadov a month ago, outlining his ideas for a political solution. The message, relayed through President Ruslan Aushev of neighboring Ingushetia, went unanswered. "Maskhadov disappeared," Putin said. "We have had neither sight nor sound of him. We will not be involved in idle words."
It is extraordinary that Putin claims to have made this attempt to reach the rebel Chechen leader even before Russia's March 26 presidential elections, which saw him win a solid first-round mandate. Much of Putin's popularity was based on his uncompromising conduct of the war to crush Chechnya's decade-old independence drive.
Although polls continue to show almost two-thirds of Russians support the military campaign to some extent, there is a growing feeling in Moscow that the operation has outlived its political usefulness and could become a serious liability for the Kremlin.
"This may sound cynical, but the war has already achieved all its main purposes," says Alan Kasayev, a Caucasus expert with the daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta. "A year ago Russian society was dazed, and our leadership was in disarray. Today society is consolidated, and we have elected a strong popular leader."
The same surveys that show the majority of Russians backing the military operation, also reveal that half of them doubt repeated Kremlin assurances that the war is almost over and won.
It is "sinking in that this conflict is just beginning," says Sergei Arutyunov, a specialist on North Caucasian politics at the official Institute of Ethnology in Moscow. "Spring has arrived in Chechnya.... The rebels will become highly mobile.... The war is about to go into a much more intense guerrilla mode."
If the Kremlin is hoping for a political route out, the problem is where to find reliable and credible Chechen negotiating partners. Maskhadov, elected the republic's president with a comfortable majority in 1997, remains the only obvious choice. Moscow is trapped by its wartime rhetoric that vilified the Chechen president as an "illegitimate leader," a "war criminal," and "terrorist accomplice." Maskhadov was never able to assert his authority over Chechnya's fractious clans, and the war may have fatally weakened his position. Russia's relentless assault, using air power and heavy weapons, has broken up Chechnya's armed forces into small, locally based groups. That may make for effective guerrilla warfare but, as even Maskhadov admitted in his Kommersant interview, centralized command becomes difficult. Russian military experts estimate Maskhadov controls no more than 500 of the 2,500 guerrillas thought to be holed up in Chechnya's rugged southern districts.
The Chechen president has tried hard to project himself as an indispensible element of any peace plan. He has distanced himself from Mr. Basayev and the Arab-born warlord Khattab, the Chechen field commanders most hated by the Russians. He has pledged to release Russian prisoners of war and declared a unilateral cease-fire.
"There is no alternative to Maskhadov," says Mr. Kasayev. "No one else has even a hint of the legitimate authority ... over the whole Chechen nation that would be required if any genuine peace process is to take place."
But the truth may turn out to be that opportunities for a negotiated settlement were buried months ago, under the smoldering ruins of Chechnya's capital city of Grozny. "During these months of war Maskhadov has lost his strength and credibility," says Sergei Kazyennov, an analyst with the pro-government Institute of National Security in Moscow. "There is no other way but to go on fighting and show the Chechens, as many times as necessary, that their only possible future is as part of Russia."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society