Chechnya's Forgotten Majority

In the cacophony of clashing voices that sounded out after last month's tragedy in Moscow, little has been heard from ordinary Chechens. That is a great shame and it carries an implicit danger. I have the strong impression that there is still a very large constituency in Chechnya that rejects the armed men on both sides and would seize compromise with both hands. But as their voices are drowned out, so the vortex of violence grows.

These ordinary Chechens are now bearing the brunt of the aftermath of the "Nord Ost" tragedy: Several hundred Chechen males have disappeared over the past month, snatched by the military and unlikely to be seen again alive. And, tragically, the middle ground of Chechen opinion they represent is now being trampled on from both sides.

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In developments, which received much too little media coverage, a Chechen dialogue process had been under way for many months this year before the "Nord Ost" crisis intervened. Its initiator was the Chechen former Supreme Soviet speaker Ruslan Khasbulatov, who vigorously denounced both the radical rebels and Russian war crimes. Among the Russian politicians who supported him was former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov.

Khasbulatov began reaching out to his former adversary, separatist President Aslan Maskhadov, and they exchanged messages by videotape. The key intermediary in the dialogue was Akhmed Zakayev, who represented Maskhadov at informal peace talks in Liechtenstein in August. The next stage in this process was to be the Chechen congress in Copenhagen, embracing a still wider spectrum of opinion.

All of this, of course, was blown out of the water by last month's crisis.

There are already conspiracy theorists, suggesting the hostage-taking in Moscow was deliberately staged in order to destroy these fragile peace efforts. I find that too much to believe, but even if the attack was not planned with that aim in mind, that was what it achieved: The hawks on both sides, who have no interest in a peace deal, emerged far stronger from it. The Russian military suspended plans to withdraw troops from Chechnya and the Islamist hostage-takers won the praise of Osama bin Laden himself.

Zakayev went overnight from being a useful interlocutor for the Russians -- it was he, after all, who held talks with President Vladimir Putin's envoy to the Southern Federal District Viktor Kazantsev in Sheremetyevo Airport a year ago -- to being declared a wanted criminal. Putin then burned all bridges with Maskhadov and compared him to bin Laden.

The Kremlin has dismissed both Maskhadov's and Zakayev's denunciation of the hostage-taking and accused them of complicity in the attack.

For a number of reasons, this strikes me as extremely implausible and it is worth restating why.

Basically, the vision of Chechnya espoused by Maskhadov and that espoused by the group that seized the theater are diametrically opposed. Maskhadov has repeatedly called for peace negotiations and, while keeping up military resistance to the Russian military, has ruled out attacking civilian targets. He was so implacably opposed to Arbi Barayev, the founding father of the group which attacked Moscow, that his supporters fought a pitched battle with Barayev in 1998.

It is true that Maskhadov has recently been making more radical statements and in July he tried to rekindle his alliance with the notorious warrior Shamil Basayev. But this seems to have been in recognition of Basayev's military abilities, rather than any political meeting of minds. The two men launched a military offensive in August against a string of towns and villages. Apart from the downing of a helicopter outside Khankala on Aug. 18, with heavy loss of life, the offensive got nowhere and fizzled out. Since the Moscow crisis the two men have fallen out again.

The strongest indication that Maskhadov was not behind the siege came in an interview that he gave to Chechenpress news agency on Oct. 22, just one day before Barayev's men seized the theater. In it, the president proudly said he could personally vouch that any Arab volunteers fighting in Chechnya had no connections with al-Qaida. He went on to boast: "I can responsibly declare that no one has carried out or planned any acts of terrorism from the territory of Chechnya."

That statement looked extremely lame the next day and it plainly exposed the real problem -- that Maskhadov's authority among the fighters has waned and that he is not in control of all or perhaps even a majority of Chechen rebel forces. The extremists and the Islamists now have the upper hand.

In Moscow this serves as a sort of second-best argument: "Well, if Maskhadov was not behind the Moscow attack, then he was powerless to stop it and therefore he is unable to deliver any peace deal anyway -- so there is no point in talking to him."

Certainly, Maskhadov is a greatly diminished man. It seems quite likely that peace talks with him by themselves would not be enough to stop the war. I suspect -- and I say this as someone who has had great respect for Maskhadov over the years -- that he will never wield any real political power in Chechnya again.

But in one key respect he cannot be counted out. That is because Maskhadov still remains the only Chechen in history who was freely elected by his people in a vote that was internationally recognized. Around 600,000 Chechens voted in that election, two thirds of them for him -- a result the Russian authorities can only dream of achieving in the "manufactured" polls Moscow intends to hold in Chechnya next year.

Watching the election in 1997, I got the impression that Maskhadov won that endorsement not so much because he espoused independence, but because he stood for two things that ordinary Chechens wanted: security against the marauding Russian army and negotiations with Moscow.

A lot has changed since then. Chechnya has descended even further into the Dark Ages and talk of independence has slipped out of sight -- perhaps forever.

Yet, talking to Chechens, even those who are disappointed with Maskhadov himself, I sense that they still take pride in that election. It is quite possible that, if they had another chance to vote as they did in 1997, Chechens would throw Maskhadov out at the ballot box. Or they might not. The key point is that it should not be for outsiders to decide. Those in Moscow trample on that principle at their own peril -- and, in that sense, a rejection of Maskhadov is a sign of disrespect to the whole Chechen population.

Sooner or later, the Kremlin will have to pay attention to these Chechens, who I still believe are in the majority. Typically, they hate the Russian forces as savage occupiers and also loathe the Wahhabi interlopers. They are proud of having voted for Maskhadov, but no longer want to see Chechnya independent. They would gladly put Shamil Basayev on trial -- but would want to see General Vladimir Shamanov (head of the western group of forces in Chechnya until January 2001) and former Defense Minister Pavel Grachev in the dock too.

A fair set of views -- but one drowned out by the noise of the radicals in full cry.

Thomas de Waal is Caucasus editor with the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (www.iwpr.net) in London. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.