Responding to pleas from Moscow's frightened Chechen community, President Vladimir Putin has spelled out his version of a political endgame for Russia's long conflict with breakaway Chechnya.
But critics warn that Mr. Putin's scheme contains nothing new. And the observers say the plan may be too rigid to stop the radicalization of young Chechens like those who seized hostages at a Moscow theater last month.
In particular, the Kremlin's rejection of any role for moderate rebel leaders, such as Chechnya's elected president Aslan Maskhadov, may doom the plan to irrelevance.
Speaking to leaders of Moscow's Chechen diaspora Sunday, Putin said the Kremlin would sponsor a referendum on a new constitution for Chechnya, to be held in the tiny republic next spring, followed by elections to a local legislative assembly. He pledged to initiate a political process that could produce legitimate leaders and government institutions, as well as a large measure of autonomy though not independence for the war- ravaged region.
In an unprecedented step, about a dozen leaders of Moscow's 100,000-strong Chechen community had asked for the meeting with Putin out of growing fear that last month's eruption of Chechnya's bitter conflict in central Moscow might trigger police repression and even pogroms against Chechen homes and businesses around Russia. They appealed to Putin to end the war and restore stability.
Anna Politkovskaya, a Russian journalist who has covered Chechnya's rebel movement and was summoned to negotiate with the hostage-takers last month, says the panic of Moscow's moderate Chechen business community is a sign of deeper trouble. In the past, she says, leaders of the Chechen diaspora, working through Chechnya's tight clan system, may have been able to prevent terrorist attacks against the Russian capital. In fact, last month's theater raid was the first overtly Chechen strike in Moscow. (A series of apartment bombs three years ago were blamed on Chechen rebels, but the accusations were never proved.)
"Radicalization of young Chechens is snowballing," says Ms. Politkovskaya. "The leaders of the Chechen diaspora have lost their influence among the young, who are impatient and want to see as much pain inflicted on Russia as possible. Stability has collapsed."
Ms. Politkovskaya says that Chechen rebel leader Mr. Maskhadov is also under pressure from angry young militants, who favor Islamic extremist ideology and ruthless terrorist methods.
"If Russia doesn't move quickly to work with Maskhadov, he may be swept away," she says. "In that case there will be one terrorist act after another, and Russia will have nobody to negotiate with."
But Putin's plan, though it promises a political process, freezes out Maskhadov and other relatively moderate Chechen rebels.
"Those who choose Maskhadov choose war," Putin said during the meeting at the Kremlin. "Those who propose negotiating with that murderer might as well suggest reaching an agreement with (Osama) bin Laden and Mullah Omar," the well-known leaders of Al Qaeda and the Taliban. And he made clear that any future constitution for the republic will permanently lock it into Russia's federal system.
"Citizens must understand what a Chechen settlement means," Putin said. "The issue here is maintaining the integrity of the Russian state."
Critics say that leaves only Chechen forces already allied to Moscow, such as the Kremlin's handpicked Chechen leader Akhmad Kadyrov, to write the republic's constitution and be elected to its new legislature.
"You can't have talks with people you nominate yourself instead of those you're fighting with," says Andrei Piontkovsky, director of the independent Center for Strategic Studies in Moscow. "This plan is a blind alley."
Some of the pro-Moscow Chechen leaders who attended the Kremlin meeting with Putin sound a bit more hopeful. "Ninety-nine percent of Chechens are exhausted with war and will welcome any move to peace," says Dzhabrail Gakayev, head of the Chechen Cultural Center in Moscow and one of the signatories of the appeal to Putin. "But Putin is mistaken in such a narrow approach. He must broaden the process and invite in all forces who want peace."
Says Aslambek Aslakhanov, Chechnya's sole deputy to the State Duma: "This chain of war and hatred has to be broken, and I'll support anything that leads to this. A referendum may be a good idea, but not if it's going to be held at gunpoint."
Last month's hostage crisis formed one of the bitterest chapters in Russia's conflict with Chechnya. On Oct. 23, 50 heavily armed and explosives-laden Chechens, demanding that Russian troops withdraw from Chechnya within a week, seized Moscow's Na Dubrovke theater and more than 800 hostages. Security forces stormed the building after three days, shooting dead all the Chechens but also inadvertently causing most of the 128 hostage fatalities with an experimental knockout gas used to subdue the rebels.
The attack sent shivers through many in the Chechen community, who fear a breakdown of the relative ethnic peace that has prevailed in Moscow, despite two savage wars in Chechnya.
"When terrorist acts occur, Chechens, wherever they are, will be blamed," says Mr. Aslakhanov. "There is a big possibility of more terrorist strikes. No one knows what will happen then."
"Ethnic splits are growing in this country, and the war is feeding the prejudices of average Russians against Chechens and people from the Caucasus in general," says Mr. Gakayev of the Chechen Cultural Center.
Though they are Russian citizens, the huge Chechen diaspora in Russian cities have led precarious lives since the first war to crush a separatist movement in Chechnya began in 1994.
Chechens are regularly subjected to "special procedures" by police, such as fingerprinting, and are sometimes singled out for violent treatment by Russian nationalist and skinhead groups.
Gakayev says that in the wake of the theater attack, there has been sporadic persecution of individual Chechens but nothing like the wave of arrests, police beatings, and deportations that occurred in Moscow following a series of still-unsolved apartment bombings that killed hundreds in 1999. "This time authorities are keeping things under control, but Chechens are still regarded as enemy aliens," he says.