Doing Well out of War

Jonathan Steele reflects on the stand-off between Russia and Chechnya

The Beslan school siege would seem to have closed the door on a political resolution of the war in Chechnya. Vladimir Putin was still palpitating with anger three days after the dénouement when he met a group of Western academics and journalists who had been invited before the siege on an expenses-paid trip to meet him. ‘Why should we talk to child-killers?’ Putin asked me. The question is one that goes down well with most Russians: it was repeated in essence several times in the conversation as well as in the televised broadcast in which the Russian president called for the ‘mobilisation’ of the nation against the enemy.

Putin’s willingness to talk to foreigners for three and a half hours – the meeting didn’t end until after midnight – was a message in itself. He wanted the world to understand that he had not merely refused to negotiate with the hostage-takers during the siege but that talks with the Chechen insurgents’ leadership were also taboo. He dismissed Aslan Maskhadov, the last freely elected Chechen president, as a man ‘who does not control the territory’. The next day the Kremlin announced a $10 million bounty for Maskhadov’s arrest or death, claiming he had masterminded the Beslan attack.

Yet, for all the president’s public toughness, the possibility of talks cannot be excluded. Disputes over territory between local people and outside rulers may be contained by war; they cannot be solved. Putin recognised this when he authorised one of his top generals to meet Maskhadov’s envoy three years ago. Although that encounter got nowhere, it established that negotiations are not unthinkable. Perhaps the Kremlin knows that ultimately it may need Maskhadov, however much it suits Putin to demonise him now. That, at any rate, would explain the strange fact that Maskhadov has never been captured by Russian forces, even though he is believed never to leave a small, non-mountainous area of Chechnya.

So the real questions for Chechnya are: how could talks start; who could convene them; who would attend; what would a peace deal include; and how could it be made to stick, given the collapse of the region’s economy, the huge war-driven brain-drain, and the militarisation of a generation which has never finished school and knows almost nothing but war. That said, the Kremlin still believes the benefits of continuing the war outweigh the costs. Putin, after all, inherited the Russian presidency in 2000 on the back of the war. Yeltsin made him prime minister the day after a group of Chechen insurgents, led by Shamil Basaev (who claimed responsibility for what happened at Beslan), seized two villages in neighbouring Dagestan. In response, Putin ordered Russian troops back into Chechnya, from which they had withdrawn in 1997.

Suspicions have swirled round Basaev’s 1999 offensive. Did the Russians have advance warning? Did they even encourage it? Boris Berezovsky, who was deputy secretary of Russia’s Security Council under Yeltsin at the end of the first Chechen war, and helped to negotiate the 1997 deal with Maskhadov, believes they did. ‘There were people inside the FSB and the army who never accepted that peace. They continued to press Russia to take revenge,’ he said in a recent interview.

In the summer of 1999, Berezovsky, by then no longer a member of the government, says he was visited by a Chechen ally of Basaev, who asked him how Russia would react to a Chechen incursion into Dagestan. Berezovsky says he told his visitor it would be a crazy thing to do and would lose Chechens their international support. But when Berezovsky contacted Sergei Stepashin, Putin’s predecessor as prime minister, Stepashin is supposed to have told him to keep quiet because everything was under control. Berezovsky may be biased, but after he lost his job Stepashin himself told a Russian newspaper that the Kremlin had started planning a second invasion of Chechnya in March 1999, long before the Basaev offensive in Dagestan.

Unlike the first Chechen war, the second met with little opposition from the Russian parliament, the media or public opinion. Among other incidents, explosions in two blocks of flats in Moscow in September 1999 had been attributed by the authorities to the Chechens – though here, too, there is evidence of FSB involvement – and most Russians accepted the official line. Once they might have thought that the Chechen ‘problem’ would be solved if Chechnya were given its independence. But Chechnya’s two chaotic years of de facto independence between 1997 and 1999 had put paid to that. Chechnya now seemed to be a launch pad for terrorism throughout Russia.

The anarchy of 1997-99 far exceeded the troubles of Chechnya’s first spell of independence between 1991 and 1994. Those early post-Soviet years had seen a rise in criminality and mafia activity in every part of Russia and the former Soviet republics, as people grabbed what had previously been state property, sought to get their hands on the sources of wealth in a new free-for-all economy, and used their political power in the new local parliaments to try to legitimise summary privatisations. There were shootings, contract killings, and a virtual end to any tax revenues reaching central or local exchequers. Chechnya produces oil which when refined is used for airline fuel. Pipelines taking some of Azerbaijan’s oil to Russia also pass through the country. Not surprisingly there were constant armed clashes over property and resources. But what happened in Chechnya between 1991 and 1994 was little different from what was going on all over the former Soviet Union. In his extraordinary late-night conversation with us, Putin denounced the war Yeltsin had unleashed. ‘I would criticise those leaders in the early 1990s in Russia for the decisions they made about Chechnya,’ he said, then added: ‘Perhaps if I was in their position I would not have made those mistakes; perhaps I would have.’

The second period of independence was different. Kidnapping Chechens and foreigners now seemed like good business to criminal gangs. Six Red Cross workers were murdered in Grozny. Four British telephone engineers were beheaded. Many of the Soviet-trained elite had fled to Russian cities during the war, and were afraid to return. Districts fell into the hands of small-scale thugs and warlords. In desperation, many young Chechens turned to radical Islam – though not in the huge numbers Russian propaganda has suggested.

Whether the situation could have been stabilised by investment and a large injection of aid is debatable, but neither Moscow nor any foreign government was interested. Chechnya was a failed state. Western governments felt they had their hands full in the former Yugoslavia; and Moscow, having been defeated in war, was not going to be generous to Chechnya in peace. When war started again in 1999, the West was at first staggered. It was as though the United States had reinvaded Vietnam in 1978, three years after its diplomats had been helicoptered off the Embassy roof in Saigon.

But Chechnya was not Vietnam. For his invasion Putin used three times as many troops as Yeltsin had done in 1994. He quickly evicted the disparate Chechen forces from Grozny without resorting to the ferocious artillery strikes and bombing which had flattened the city five years earlier. His tough image, and his control of the majority of Russian TV stations, which enabled him to use the war to divert attention from the country’s economic misery, helped to make him popular and ensured his election as president in 2000. Putin also used – and continues to use – the war to reinforce central control in Russia. From now on, the Kremlin will nominate the candidates who can be picked by local parliaments as regional governors. A party-list system will be in operation for all elections to the federal Duma. This, coupled with the requirement that parties get 7 per cent of the national vote before being allocated any seats, means that only large, Kremlin-authorised parties will be able to stand and candidates will be selected at the whim of party leaders.

The benefits Putin sees in the Chechen war are political, but many less powerful people are making money out of it. Few Russian troops in Chechnya are conscripts: most are there on contract. They are tempted to volunteer by the money they can make there, mainly illegally. At the most basic level are the unofficial ‘fees’ soldiers charge Chechen drivers and bus passengers at checkpoints. The main checkpoint on the border with Ingushetia, known as Kavkaz, is an especially good source of easy money. The Russian human rights organisation Memorial has catalogued hundreds of more serious cases of extortion. Chechens are taken in for questioning by Russian troops, and ransomed back to their families. When they are tortured and murdered in custody, as often happens, families sometimes have to pay to get the bodies back.

Senior Russian officers make money from oil. Chechnya is peppered with what Texans call ‘donkeys’, those small pumps which nod back and forth as they extract oil. Each donkey is ‘owned’ by a group of officers, who profit from selling all or part of the oil it produces to black-market tanker-drivers, who sell it on in nearby Russian cities. The system relies on collusion with Chechen insurgents and warlords, who get protection money for not attacking the donkeys. Russian forces also sell weapons and information to the insurgents in a reciprocal trade which keeps the war going.

Putin is perfectly aware of all this. It is frequently mentioned in Russia’s few independent newspapers, and was highlighted in a book by the former prime minister Yevgeni Primakov in 2002. In an excerpt printed in a state-owned paper, and therefore authorised by someone in the Kremlin, Primakov denounced the lack of discipline among Russian officers and said it led to ‘plunder’.

How can the tide be turned? What might make Putin feel that peace talks and a political settlement would bring him more advantages than the status quo? The first requirement is the exclusion of formal independence as a subject for negotiation. If the Kremlin believes the point of talks is merely to ratify Chechnya’s secession, it will not take part, given Putin’s fear of a domino effect in which Chechen independence leads to similar demands from Dagestan, Ingushetia, North Ossetia and the rest of the North Caucasus. Foreign governments and any potential mediators should drop the issue of secession, even if Putin is probably wrong to worry about it. Most people in the region see Chechnya as a special case. The economies of the North Caucasian republics largely rely on the Russian market, and although Putin’s latest move to put local governors under tighter control could act as a provocation, at the moment neither the political elites nor the local semi-criminal oligarchs seem interested in secession.

Maskhadov himself stopped calling for independence three years ago. He and his spokesmen say they will be satisfied with some form of autonomy with special status inside the Russian Federation. They disclosed this important shift in Switzerland in 2001, at unofficial talks with key members of Russia’s Duma. A second round in Liechtenstein in 2002 agreed on the main points of a peace treaty, which Ruslan Khasbulatov, a Chechen and a former leader of Russia’s Supreme Soviet, was to draft. It was to call for Chechnya to be demilitarised but gave Russia the right to guard its southern borders with Georgia.

The second condition for talks is that any foreign involvement must be ‘non-threatening’. Putin is very touchy about sovereignty. He suspects that the United States and the major European powers want to undermine Russia and even provoke it into falling apart. Although he accepts the expansion of Nato as an accomplished fact, he sees it as essentially anti-Russian. Any suggestion of a major European role in finding a Chechen solution would be viewed as part of the same strategy. A UN role would be worse.

On the other hand, it’s hard to see how serious talks on Chechnya could take place without outside mediation. The mistrust of Russia is so great among Chechnya’s potential leaders that they will need guarantees of safe conduct and amnesty if they are to emerge for talks. These can only be provided by foreigners after discussions with Moscow. For the same reason, the initial talks will have to take place abroad, which also presupposes a role for outsiders.

One suggestion is for intermediaries to come from a small European country, such as Norway, which has already mediated between Israel and the Palestinians and in Sri Lanka. Another is that a European group of ‘eminent persons’ could broker talks. The parliamentary assembly of the Council of Europe – to which Russia belongs – has so far been the leading international group on Chechnya. It has conducted numerous debates on the issue and passed several sensible resolutions, but relations became strained last year when Moscow denounced its rapporteur, Britain’s Frank Judd, and refused to go on working with him.

Judd’s successor, the Swiss Andreas Gross, was allowed into Chechnya in August in spite of criticising the lack of democracy in the elections Russia organised. Gross believes that the world has to work with the new Chechen president, Alu Alkhanov, even if his election was flawed, and takes some comfort from Alkhanov’s having told him that one of his heroes is Charles de Gaulle, who made peace between France and Algeria’s anti-colonial rebels.

Gross has proposed a round table of Russians and Chechens, to be held in Strasbourg, and convened by an eminent persons’ group. This would be the first stage in a series of ‘talks about talks’ which could eventually lead to a plan of action. Who would take part? Even Putin claims to want a political settlement in Chechnya. His idea, he told me, is for elections to a parliament in Chechnya next spring ‘in which we will try to attract as many people as possible with different views’.

The trouble is that these elections are the third stage in a programme of top-down ‘Chechenisation’ which Putin launched two years ago. It began with the secret writing of an authoritarian constitution which created a powerful Chechen presidency and a weak parliament, a flawed referendum to ratify it, and then equally flawed elections for the presidency. Genuine round-table talks will have to look beyond this. Primakov pointed out two years ago that the resistance enjoyed support ‘from a significant part of the civilian population’. Local security, he said, could not be guaranteed without ‘talks with some of the field commanders’. ‘One should not,’ he added, ‘make a fetish of elections.’

Other experienced politicians in Russia have more recently made similar proposals. At the end of September, Ruslan Aushev, the former president of Ingushetia, who negotiated the release of 26 hostages from the Beslan school a day before the terrible climax, called on the Russian authorities to talk to the Chechen resistance. ‘There are moderate rebels. Fortunately they make up the majority,’ he said. ‘But there are also radicals who are ready to blow up, seize and so on. So the more pressure and force we use, the more radicals we create.’

‘Today there is a pressing need to look for political solutions, negotiate with moderate elements in the resistance movement, and isolate them from hardline extremists,’ Mikhail Gorbachev told a Moscow paper. Even Umar Djabrailov, Chechnya’s Kremlin-approved representative in the Federation Council, the Russian parliament’s upper house, was quoted as saying after Beslan: ‘If the way we took to solve the situation – fighting, bombing, killing – doesn’t work, then we have to realise that something is wrong, and find another way. The other way – as the history of the world shows – is the negotiation process.’

Talks about talks do not require an initial ceasefire, though that should be an early goal. The agenda will have to include serious action by the Russian authorities to weed out corruption in their own security forces and provide oil production with a system of transparent public management. At least 80,000 Chechens officially qualify for compensation for destroyed houses and flats. Fewer than a quarter have received it, because money earmarked for Chechen reconstruction disappears in the federal and local bureaucracies. Human rights violations on both sides will have to be investigated by independent experts. The amnesty Putin offered in advance of the various Chechen elections exonerated Russian officers and soldiers, as well as supporters of the men chosen to stand for the Chechen presidency, for any crimes committed in the past, while denying it to ‘terrorists’ (loosely defined) or people wanted for murder. A much wider amnesty will be needed.

The UN and the European Union have already given generously to programmes to help returning refugees, but they cannot be expected to do more unless the Russian authorities open Chechnya to NGOs and the media and show greater willingness to spend their own money there. Since Russia insists that Chechnya is part of the Russian Federation, it cannot expect outsiders to provide the bulk of the aid. A clearly stated shift of policy on Putin’s part is necessary before even talks about talks can get off the ground.