By Sanobar Shermatova in Moscow (CRS No.169, 07-Mar-03)
The Kremlin appears to be quietly priming itself for a referendum this month on a new constitution that will strengthen the power of its chosen leader in Chechnya Akhmad Kadyrov and formally include the republic as part of Russia.
But on closer inspection, things are not that simple. Apparently, Moscow may not have completely abandoned the idea of striking a deal with supporters of Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov.
In fact, it has now emerged that a high-level Russian official was holding talks with Maskhadov's envoys prior to the mass hostage seizure by Chechen militants in Moscow last October.
The bloody Nord-Ost theatre siege, that took the lives of more than 120 hostages and all the extremists, put an end to those talks. However, the Kremlin has reactivated its potential negotiating channels in recent weeks - just in case. One of the new contacts for the Kremlin is Salambek Maigov, authorised by Maskhadov to negotiate with Moscow.
A graduate student of Moscow's prestigious Institute of World Economics and International Relations, Maigov, 36, has publicly put himself forward as a peace broker, saying he was ready to negotiate with Russian politicians prepared to discuss a peaceful settlement.
Another prospective mediator, Vakha Arsanov, Maskhadov's former vice-president, was last heard of at the beginning of Russia's second Chechen campaign more than three years ago. Before the first war, Arsanov, 50, served in Chechnya's traffic police.
Since the autumn of 1999, he has been campaigning among the rebels to stop killing pro-Russian Chechen police officers and, more recently, volunteered as a peace mediator for the Putin administration.
Why have these figures appeared now on the Chechen political scene? Apparently, Arsanov is pursuing his own agenda. Fired by Maskhadov three years ago, he has little influence among the rebels. There are indications that he has good links to Chechnya's pro-Russian leader, Akhmad Kadyrov, a former mufti. Arsanov may have decided that this is the right time to stake out his claim as Maskhadov's successor.
Maskhadov's appointment of Maigov as his envoy in Russia is more mysterious. What makes Maskhadov, for whom Russia has an official arrest warrant, think that Russian officials will be willing to talk to his representative?
President Vladimir Putin's recent statements and Moscow's activity in Chechnya leave no doubt that the plans for the constitutional referendum in Chechnya are final.
After the new constitution is adopted by plebiscite, parliamentary and presidential elections will follow. The script leaves no place for the freedom fighters.
However, Russia's policy in Chechnya has another, hidden side to it. Two unconnected sources have told IWPR that shortly before the Moscow theatre siege, talks were held with Maskhadov in North Ossetia, and the Kremlin knew about it. The talks were conducted by a high-ranking Russian official who was in no danger of falling foul of the Russian authorities for meeting with an envoy of Maskhadov.
In any event, the Moscow hostage crisis and ensuing arrest of Maskhadov's European envoy Akhmed Zakaev in Copenhagen and London destroyed whatever hope there was of a peaceful settlement.
Maskhadov lost his negotiating leverage. Arrest warrants were issued for other long-standing mediators, such as Maskhadov's former interior minister Kazbek Makhashev, who were no longer in a position to talk to the federal authorities. Those not branded terrorists had left the scene for a number of different reasons.
According to analysts, Professor Ruslan Khazbulatov, the prominent Chechen politician who designed his own peaceful settlement plan for Chechnya and had Maskhadov's go-ahead to negotiate with Russia, has lost influence. Last summer during informal talks in Liechtenstein with Zbigniew Brzezinski, former US national security advisor and chairman of the American Committee for Peace in Chechnya, Khazbulatov reportedly agreed that international peacekeepers should be deployed in Chechnya. Moscow consequently abandoned him as a mediator.
Anxious to recruit new mediators, Maskhadov apparently chose Maigov who never fought against federal troops and was therefore acceptable for Moscow, although he still supports the cause of Chechen independence.
Like the rebels, he is opposed to the March 23 constitutional referendum, which, he believes, will not only fail to bring peace to Chechnya, but will deepen the existing rift in Chechen society.
Moscow is unlikely to give up its plans to hold the plebiscite. Obviously, Maskhadov's envoy is a backup player in this game, who will enter the field when the moment is ripe.
The question is when is the right time for negotiating? What may happen after the referendum? The latter question has been partially answered by Umar Avturkhanov, who headed the pro-Moscow opposition fighting against Dudaev's regime in Chechnya in 1994.
Like Arsanov, Avturkhanov has recently reappeared on the scene after many years of political oblivion. After the pro-Russian Provisional Council, headed by Avturkhanov, was disbanded in 1995, he got a job at the federal tax service and seemed to have left politics. But a few days ago Avturkhanov hosted a Chechen roundtable in the Golden Room of Moscow's prestigious Rossiya Hotel.
Avturkhanov announced that he had met with rebel negotiators in Karabulak, Ingushetia, at the end of January. The two sides agreed to form a steering committee of the National Council of Chechnya. The purpose of the council is to find a peaceful settlement in collaboration with the rebels.
Avturkhanov believes the effort should start with drafting an amnesty law, as fighters will never return to peaceful life without cast-iron guarantees of immunity.
But this point has already sparked controversy. No legislation will guarantee safety for the rebels as long as Chechnya is controlled by federal forces.
Instances have been reported when former rebels surrendering to federal troops were executed or mysteriously "disappeared". Partial withdrawal of federal troops appears to be essential to Chechen reconciliation. Power should be transferred to civilian authorities. These are crucial issues that cannot be solved as long as Russian military authorities in Chechnya disobey the Kremlin's orders.
Avturkhanov also suggests that Moscow should appoint a commissioner for Chechnya who would combine military and civilian powers, and report personally to Putin. This way, he argues, federal military would be deprived of their omnipotence in Chechnya. Naturally, Avturkhanov is prepared to volunteer as such a commissioner.
Avturkhanov told IWPR he has no claim to the presidency and is therefore free to negotiate with marginalised rebel leader Shamil Basaev and Muslim militants of the Wahhabi movement.
Are these plans viable? Peace brokering is a risky business in Russia. Avturkhanov is not guaranteed to win even though he reportedly enjoys the backing of certain FSB factions and business tycoons who would like to see Putin re-elected.
Certainly, these contacts weaken Kadyrov and show that he has many rivals for the leadership of Chechnya. He earlier insisted that under the new draft constitution, candidates for president should have lived for ten years in Chechnya, which would have excluded Chechen pretenders resident in Moscow. But this point has been removed, giving hope to some of Kadyrov's competitors.
Kadyrov it seems has the trust only of Putin himself - and even this could change later in the year.
The true balance of forces will become more apparent after March 23.
Sanobar Shermatova is a correspondent with Moscow News.