BACKGROUND: In a December 17th interview, Putin stated that the Russian Federation de facto granted Chechnya independence. Putin referred to the Khasavyurt agreement, and the troop withdrawals that followed it. He further stated that international terrorists and fundamentalists filled the vacuum that Khasavyurt created. According to Putin, the agreement made possible Chechnya’s if not de jure, at least de facto independence, and hence Russia cannot be accused of suppressing the Chechen people’s desire for independence. But a quasi-state of a terrorist nature was established, and since Chechen leaders failed to establish a well-functioning state, they forfeited their right to independence. Putin implies that Chechen Republic’s status ceased to be an issue of controversy after Khasavyurt, which is a far-reaching interpretation of the agreement, to say the least. Signed by Aslan Maskhadov and Alexandr Lebed on August 31, 1996, Khasavyurt stipulated that an agreement on the terms for relations between the Russian Federation and the Chechen Republic was to be reached before December 31, 2001. But it says nothing about the formal status of the Chechen Republic. The agreement was violated in Fall 1999, when federal troops invaded Chechnya. In Russian official parlance, the real problem is not the formal status of the Chechen Republic – it is all about fighting terrorists. During his two years as President, Putin has launched several reforms in order to tighten his grip on the Federation Council, regional governors and regional legislative assemblies, as well as on the mass media and political parties. By establishing seven new federal districts, the enforcement of federal policies and laws should become more efficient, ensuring the ‘dictatorship of law’. In this political context, it is unlikely that negotiations between the Kremlin and the Chechen government could result in an agreement acceptable to both the separatists and Moscow. Although several meetings have been held in the last few months between Putin’s envoy to the region Viktor Kazantsev, and Maskhadov’s representative Ahmed Zakayev, Moscow denies that official negotiations are taking place, or that they ever will. Kazantsev on January 3 ruled out negotiations, since that would be ‘unethical’ with regard to the Russian soldiers that have died in Chechnya. By negotiating with what it refers to as terrorists, Putin would probably put his public support at risk. In addition, initiating official negotiations would contradict Putin’s image as a strong leader determined to come to terms with asymmetric federalism in Russia. And even if the federal centre would desire to obtain a political solution, with whom should it negotiate? Maskhadov’s tenure as President expires on January 27, and although he has unilaterally extended his tenure by one year, this makes it more feasible for Moscow to claim that negotiations with the pro-Russian ‘official’ Chechen administration are legitimate. Putin’s statement that Chechnya had achieved de facto and probably also de jure independence are interesting from a constitutional law perspective. Chechnya refused to sign the 1992 Federation Treaty, and boycotted the referendum on the Russian Constitution in 1993. Hence Chechnya’s legal status is unsettled. A Moscow-friendly official administration in Grozny could officially accede to the Russian Federation, in compliance with the new law on the Formation of new Federal Subjects. If this scenario would constitute the beginning of the end of Moscow’s conflict with the Chechen Republic, recognizing that the Chechen Republic achieved independence in 1996 is a small prize for Putin to pay. Of course, it remains incomparable to the prize paid by the Chechen people and to the violations of democratic principles human rights and freedoms in Chechnya.
IMPLICATIONS: Assuming that there is an ambition to reach a political solution to the war, what would the implications of Putin’s centralizing reforms and ‘dictatorship of law’ be for Chechnya’s future status? Granting Chechnya independence or near-independence is unthinkable, especially considering the centralizing reforms issued by Putin. Indeed, when Putin launched his assault on the diffusion of power to the federal subjects, and tried to create a unified legal sphere in the Russian Federation, he also arguably made a political solution to the war in Chechnya impossible. Or could it be exactly the opposite? In the light of the adoption of the Law on ‘the Procedure of Acceptance and Formation of new Federal Subjects to the Russian Federation’, negotiations with the ‘official’ Chechen administration could result in an agreement on the Chechen Republic officially and finally becoming a part of the Russian Federation. Fighting in Chechnya would almost certainly go on, but Chechnya’s status would officially be solved. This could also theoretically be the case if negotiations were to be conducted with Maskhadov – that is, if he could be convinced to sign such an agreement, an unlikely prospect. Putin seems to have hit a dead-end with respect to Chechnya when issuing his centralizing policies. These policies are potentially devastating for the prospect of reaching a political solution to the question of Chechnya’s status, since this makes real autonomy impossible – though it would be a minimum requirement on the separatist side. Yet Moscow seems to prepare for reaching a ‘political solution’. Whether the eventual solution, which is certainly going to be dictated by Moscow, will be more than a piece of paper remains to be seen. It may turn out to be not the beginning of the end of the conflict, but merely a new chapter in a never-ending story.
CONCLUSIONS: In order for Moscow to be able to argue that it has settled this conflict politically, one scenario is for the ‘official’ Chechen administration to adopt a decision formally declaring the Republic a part of the Russian Federation. In this way, a political and legal solution would be reached, without having to conduct official negotiations with the so-called terrorists, and without requiring compromise on centralization or on the ‘dictatorship of law’. One may ask why Putin should bother with this in a situation where Russia is gaining if not support, at least understanding for his ‘fighting terrorism’ in Chechnya. The definition of terrorism, and who is to be considered a terrorist in international law, is vague and unclear. Unilaterally defining freedom fighters as terrorists does not prevent Russia from being exposed to outside criticism. By formally settling the status of Chechnya, and being able to refer to a decision taken by the Chechen regional administration, the federal centre can blame separatists for violations of the Constitution of the Russian Federation and federal law, as well as disrespect of a political solution. That would make it more acceptable for Russia to define freedom fighters as terrorists even should a consensus be reached on the definition of terrorism. Of course, such a solution would be cosmetic and serve Moscow’s political interests, but would not solve the war in Chechnya.
AUTHOR BIO: Anna Jonsson is a Doctoral Candidate in Constitutional Law and a Lecturer in the department of Law and the department of East European Studies, Uppsala University, Sweden.
Copyright 2001 The Analyst. All rights reserved