Putin's Chechnya options narrow

On the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Chechnya, some say there are few alternatives to negotiations.

As Russians Wednesday mark the fifth anniversary of their invasion of the separatist republic of Chechnya, a peaceful solution to the conflict could not appear less likely.

But as military options yield only more bloodshed, and a wave of terror attacks reaches beyond Chechnya to the rest of the North Caucasus and across Russia, experts say alternatives to a negotiated settlement are dwindling.

Some argue that unofficial, secret meetings held in Europe in 2001 and 2002 created a foundation for peace that can be built upon today. Others say that the changing face of the conflict - one of deepening violence , corruption of federal forces enriching themselves through war, and the widening grip of Islamists - make a peace deal impossible.

"Ultimately it will require a decision at the top," says Frederick Starr, head of the Central Asia- Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University, who helped mediate those secret meetings in Switzerland and Liechtenstein. "The [Liechtenstein] provisions do not imply a loss of face for anybody. [President Vladimir] Putin could have come out looking like a peacemaker. He still could, tomorrow."

Mr. Putin has vowed not to negotiate with "child-killers" and earlier this month compared demands from Washington to engage Chechen leaders to inviting Osama bin Laden to the White House.

Putin has also lumped together moderate Chechen leaders and warlords, putting a $10 million bounty on both Aslan Maskhadov, Chechnya's president elected in 1997 and militant Shamil Basayev, who claimed the Beslan attack.

The bounty is "absolutely counter-productive, as if [Putin] is systematically closing exit routes for himself, so that he has no one to deal with, except the head of the [Moscow-backed] puppet government," says Mr. Starr.

Mr. Maskhadov - who has often calls for talks - sought distance from Mr. Basayev Friday, vowing to punish the Chechen warlord in court. Russian officials allege the two worked in "close cooperation" over Beslan.

"All these [peace] discussions, blah, blah, blah, led to nothing," says Alexei Malashenko, a Caucasus expert at the Moscow Carnegie Center. "If there is a chance now, Putin should accept that Maskhadov is more moderate and the only guy to talk to. But they have completely gotten rid of this idea."

Malashenko expects "stagnation" in Kremlin policy, though Oct. 13 could be a turning point. It marks the 40th day after the Beslan siege, when official mourning ends and calls of revenge may mount from Christian North Ossetians, the primary victims of Beslan, against the Muslim Ingush.

"The roots [of conflict] are local," says Malashenko. "But [regional militants] more and more identify themselves with big jihad, and they are very proud. They are not insignificant minorities [in Russia]; they are a piece of a big war. That is very dangerous."

Such spillover may complicate any new negotiations. "Moscow does not regard this only as a problem of Chechnya, but as a problem of the whole Islamic North Caucasus," says Sergei Markov, an analyst with close ties to the Kremlin. "Now Chechen separatists play a very small role in this conflict. The major conflict is [with] Islamic radicals."

This wasn't always so says Starr, who says he "didn't see a trace of fanaticism from any quarter" during the meetings in 2001 and 2002, when senior Russian politicians met with Maskhadov's vice premier, Akhmed Zakayev.

The framework would have provided Chechnya with a large degree of autonomy, in exchange for separatists giving up their fight for secession.

For a time, the results looked promising. "I went with the expectation that I would be engaged in some delicate process, highly sensitive," says Starr. "To my utter astonishment, they found a common language instantly."

Russian analysts say the unofficial meetings fell foul of events. A public meeting in late 2001 convinced the Kremlin that Chechen "moderate" Maskhadov could not be trusted. Later Moscow said that Maskhadov had a hand in the Dubrovka Theater siege in October 2002.

"Today there is a pressing need to look for political solutions, negotiate with moderate elements in resistance movement, and isolate them from hardline extremists," former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev told the Moscow News last week.

"[If] the way that we took to solve the situation - fighting, bombing, killing - doesn't work, then we have to realize that something is wrong, and find another way," says Umar Djabrailov, representative of Chechnya to the Russia's Federation Council. "The other way - as the history of the world shows - is the negotiation process."

"I don't think it's a shame to talk to anyone to save even one life. We have to do anything to stop the war that is spreading all over the country," says Mr. Djabrailov, adding that Islamist Wahhabi leaders have established regional networks. "With an unreasonable approach to the problem, [authorities] make it worse. They make it endless."

The Kremlin is aware of the problem, and how it is magnified by unemployment and poverty. "If people are ready to finance [terrorist acts], there are too many people who are ready to carry them out. Mass human rights violations, mop-up operations give impetus to them," Aslanbek Aslakhanov, the ethnic Chechen Kremlin aide who took part in the 2002 peace talks as a Russian general, recently told journalists. "If a person has a job he won't go anywhere, he won't even go hunting. It's a great lie to say that Chechens are born bandits."

"The Kremlin was never too willing to have talks," said Ruslan Khasbulatov, a former speaker of the Duma tasked during the 2002 meeting with drafting the peace plan. "The term 'international terrorism' they use testifies to it: How can anybody begin talks with 'international terrorists?' "

That designation points to one element of a solution. "It's up to the international community to take control," says the Chechen-born Mr. Khasbulatov. But he says he no longer believes either the Kremlin or Chechens, and doesn't see "any prospect" of a solution.

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