Chechnya: Ceasefire or bluff?

Originally published
Rebels have offered a unilateral ceasefire, but Moscow and its local allies have rejected it outright
By Kazbek Tsurayev in Grozny (CRS No. 273, 09-Feb-05)

A surprise temporary ceasefire declared by Chechen rebel president Aslan Maskhadov last week may be having some effect on the ground, but Moscow and its allies in Chechnya have rejected the move out of hand.

"On my orders, the armed forces of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria have unilaterally stopped all offensive operations on the territory of [Chechnya] and the Russian Federation for precisely a month from February 1, 2005," said Maskhadov's statement, posted on the rebel Kavkaz-Centre internet site.

Maskhadov said the ceasefire move was prompted by the wish to avert the "real threat" that the six-year conflict presented to people in Chechnya, the wider Caucasus, and Russia itself. The war had "long exceeded the bounds set by the Kremlin", the statement said.

Umar Khambiev, who represents Maskhadov in Europe, subsequently gave an interview to the Russian newspaper Kommersant in which he cited the rebel leaders as saying the "message is addressed first and foremost to the president of Russia."

The Kremlin described the initiative as a propaganda move, and responded with an information war of its own.

The editor of another rebel website, Daimokhk, said the site was hacked and a counterfeit statement posted there alleging that Maskhadov's decree was false and that in reality he was calling for more war.

Moscow mostly delegated the task of responding to the pro-Russian Chechen government.

"This decree is of no interest to anyone but Maskhadov himself," Taus Dzhabrailov, who chairs the State Council of Chechnya, told Kommersant. "Its only aim is to stir up interest in him as an individual, and also to send a signal to politicians in Europe who have been advocating dialogue with the separatists, to show them that Maskhadov is in control of the fighters and that it makes sense to negotiate with him."

The pro-Moscow president of Chechnya, Alu Alkhanov, suggested that Maskhadov should give himself up.

"Negotiations with those who have had a hand in bloody crimes against society are absolutely out of the question," said a statement from Alkhanov's office. "The only real salvation for such people is to come forward and confess."

Since the ceasefire was announced, it has been hard to establish how far it is actually being observed. But there have been indications that it may be working, which if true would undermine Moscow's claim that Maskhadov has no real influence over the guerrillas.

Three days after the announcement, police in the republic told foreign news agencies that there had been no attacks so far.

However, an unidentified representative of the main Russian army base at Khankala told the ITAR-TASS news agency that attacks had continued, proving Maskhadov's bad faith. "Reports we received in the week since his loud statement suggest that the illegal armed groups have been acting as usual, shelling positions of federal forces and staging acts of terrorism," the source was reported as saying.

The local interior ministry spokesman, Ruslan Atsayev, was more cautious, telling IWPR that "one cannot say everything has changed".

Chechen analyst Usam Baisayev said the authorities were doing their best not to acknowledge that the ceasefire was having any success. "It's interesting that hitherto the military was claiming there was peace in the republic, whereas now they are busily looking for cases of fighting," he said.

Baisayev believes that Maskhadov announced the ceasefire to demonstrate both that he is in charge of the paramilitaries and that working alongside the radical rebel commander Shamil Basayev. "The Russian side has until now claimed that there is no force behind Maskhadov, mainly because Basayev does not obey him," said the analyst.

Shamil Basayev came out in support of Maskhadov's ceasefire in a February 7 video statement on the Kavkaz-Centre cite.

The video also represented a direct rebuff to Russian media reports that Basayev was dead.

Immediately after Britain's Channel Four broadcast a separate interview with Basayev, Russian sources cited the intelligence service in Abkhazia as saying the Chechen commander had died either of liver problems or gangrene as long ago as October 2004. They alleged that the Channel Four footage was old and made before his death.

In his subsequent statement on the Internet, Basayev countered these allegations by thrusting a knife into the prosthesis he wears on one leg to prove he was alive and "absolutely healthy".

The February 4 date on the video and its actual content suggest that it is current. For example, Basayev talks about Maskhadov's relatives, who have been recently abducted, and about his own "alleged liver problems".

Among ordinary people in Chechnya, where there is little free media, news of the ceasefire spread slowly.

Abuyezid Yunosov, 42, from the village of Samashki, heard about it from Radio Liberty's Chechen-language broadcast, and thinks it is a good idea. "The main thing for us is to ensure that people do not disappear. It does not matter how we achieve this," he said.

"A peaceful initiative should be welcomed, whoever proposes it," said Grozny resident Tamara Kalayeva, 51. She sees the ceasefire as "one of the methods or first steps towards understanding the need to solve the problem by political means."

The fact that the initiative came from the rebels is a plus for Kalayeva, since "they know the real situation in Chechnya". The danger now is that the authorities reject it.

Shakhman Akbulatov, who heads the Memorial human rights group's office in Nazran, is also doubtful that the Kremlin will be receptive to a peace offer. "The call is unlikely to be heard or accepted," he said.

Instead, Akbulatov suspects that Moscow will try to suggest that a meeting which the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe will hold in Moscow on March 21 is a Russian peace initiative. He warns that, "it will look more like a false peace initiative, since the side that represents Maskhadov's supporters is not going to attend the meeting".

From talking to ordinary Chechens, Akbulatov is certain that a ceasefire "is what the absolute majority of people want.

"The war is into its sixth year, and people are worn out and ready to welcome any opportunity to establish peace."

Kazbek Tsurayev is a correspondent for the newspaper Chechenskoye Obschestvo.