BACKGROUND: The war reached a stalemate months ago. The Russian armed forces can't crush the Chechen resistance and, so far, the Chechens have failed to force the Russians to withdraw from the republic. Even if the events of August 1996 repeat themselves, and the Russian military withdraws, Russia again may avoid an outright recognition of Chechnya's independence. Neither side can accomplish its goals without a dialogue. The only legitimate negotiating partner on the Chechen side is President Aslan Maskhadov. In January 1997 he won the presidency with 59.3% of the vote out of a field of 13 candidates; two of which (Shamil Basaev and Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev) were very serious contenders. Few presidents can claim a popular mandate of that magnitude. After the election, the Russian president and the OSCE representative congratulated Maskhadov and recognized the results. Current polling data for Chechnya is scarce, but according to the little information we do have, Maskhadov remains Chechnya's most popular politician. Chechnya has a strong legal case for independence. By the time Chechnya declared it's independence in 1991 the Soviet Union was itself in free fall, following the declarations of independence from almost all the Soviet Republics including Russia. Chechnya did not become a member of the post-Soviet Russian Federation by adopting the constitution in a national referendum nor did it enter into the Federation on the basis of a separate treaty with the center; The May 1997 peace treaty deferred the status issue, and specified that the sides would regulate relations in accordance with the norms and principles of international law. At present, Russia is regressing. Most analysts agree that the reforms of Perestroika have been undone. Although there is substantial disagreement about the extent of that backward slide, optimists draw comparisons to Chilean dictator Pinochet or the Soviet dictator Brezhnev, while pessimists detect similarities with fascist states. For their part, the Chechens have suffered on their own skins the full magnitude of today's terror. The horror is worsened as no one knows when or how it will end, or whether it will get much worse. Objective outsiders must recognize that from a Chechen perspective, it is neither radical, nor extremist, nor suicidal to seek independence. Independence is a reasonable goal, which may or may not turn out to be attainable.
IMPLICATIONS: The first step to a peace would be a cease-fire that would at least allow the delivery of humanitarian aid, an opportunity to feed the hungry, tend to the wounded, and give the dead a proper burial. Even a temporary respite would be a step in the right direction, but would hopefully create momentum for a political process. If there is anything to be learned from post-Soviet conflicts like Chechnya or Nagorno-Karabakh, it's that there is no postponing the status question. There needs to be a process that will in a short period determine status. The decision on status has to be timed with the highest point of political will favoring peace, barring which there is a risk of squandering the pro-peace momentum . Since no one has ever asked the Chechens, it seems reasonable and expedient to hold a referendum on independence. According to a poll conducted by the independent Chechen NGO LAM in January of this year, most Chechens favor a compromise status within the Russian Federation. However, those who lived in areas that underwent particularly brutal treatment were overwhelmingly committed to independence. In view of hightened intensity of recent cleansings, it is not possible to predict the outcome of a referendum on independence. The basic features of a compromise have been clear all along. The formality of Chechen membership in the Russian Federation would be maintained. Chechnya would participate in the Russian legislature, remain in the ruble zone, and forbear membership in anti-Russian alliances. However, Chechnya could not be isolated or blockaded from the outside world: It would have the right to have international representation and to receive aid, investment, and loans directly from foreign countries and international organizations. There would have to be security guarantees including the removal of the Russian armed forces. Regardless of the ultimate relations between them, there must be a comprehensive investigation focusing on the victims and the culprits on both sides. In view of the magnitude of the crimes committed, this could take on the character of an international inquiry under European or UN institutions or an internal process modeled on South Africa's truth commission. The most important aspect is to establish the truth about the origins and conduct of the war. In fact, a committee has been formed in Moscow to study the origins of the war, including Basayev's and Khattabs incursions into Dagestan in August 1999, and the bombings (and attempted bomings) in Russian cities.
CONCLUSIONS: In war time no outside actors are coming to the aid of either party. However, in the event of peace, neither Russia nor Chechnya has the resources for recovery. If there is an opportunity for peace, the international community will be called upon to contribute not only toward Chechnya's restoration but also for the needs of the Russian side. One of the key obstacles for the Russian leaders is the dilemma of how to bring home their criminalized and demoralized soldiers, many of whom are teenagers. Hearing from the US that it is ready to help by financing many aspects of the reconstruction may help convince both parties that peace is practical and feasible.
AUTHOR BIO: Miriam Lanskoy is Program Manager at the Institute for the Study of Conflict, Ideology and Policy at Boston University. She regularly writes about the Caucasus for the NIS Observed.
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