Path to political settlement in Chechnya

Date: April, 1997

'We would like to sign a treaty with Chechnya on the delimitation of powers which may, perhaps, be somewhat broader than similar agreements which we have signed with other constituent parts of the Federation.' - President Boris Yeltsin of the Russian Federation, 14 March 1997
'It is beneficial for both Russia and Chechnya to have a common economic and energy space, a unified monetary system and a unified defence system ... [But] we need political freedom - that is, we want to live in the same house but in our own apartment.' - Shamil Basayev, Chechen presidential candidate, Argumenty i Fakty, January 1997


Just over three years after Russian federal forces intervened in Chechnya*, all troops were withdrawn. Their departure, in January 1997, was the culmination of a series of agreements signed between representatives of the Russian Federation and of the Chechen Republic over the previous 18 months.

Now that the armed conflict - which claimed many thousands of lives, caused an estimated 350,000 Chechens to seek refuge in Ukraine, Russia and Kazakhstan, and devastated the Chechen infrastructure - is over, the two sides are holding negotiations on constitutional, economic and other outstanding issues. The question of the status of Chechnya (known in Chechen as Ichkeria) is seen as a potentially serious stumbling block: all Chechen politicians continue to proclaim their determination to achieve independence, while the Russian Government sees the Chechen Republic as an integral part of the Federation.

Negotiations appear to be going well. On 26 February 1997, Chechen Foreign Minister, Movladi Udugov, told a Press conference: 'We have just finished co-ordinating two documents - a peace agreement, to be signed by the Russian President, Boris Yeltsin, and by the Chechen President, Aslan Maskhadov, and a framework agreement ... which sets out work on the preparation of terms for concluding a full treaty between Russia and Chechnya ... We have every reason to believe that our future work will be successful'. Although the treaty on the delimitation of powers must be concluded within five years, the parties may be able to reach agreement earlier. Meanwhile, the precise terms of Chechnya's status, which the treaty is to define, remain unclear.

Course of the conflict, 1990-94

Since 1990, there has been an active pro-independence movement within Chechnya - partly motivated by the Chechens' desire to control more of the country's rich oil industry, but also highly nationalist and fuelled by traditional antagonism towards Russia. Djokhar Dudayev, who was then President and leader of the non-Communist United Congress of Chechen People (UCCP), declared the sovereignty of Chechnya (then an Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic within the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic) in November 1991.

In response, Yeltsin despatched troops to take over the Chechen capital, Grozny. But the gambit failed when it was countermanded by the Soviet President, Mikhail Gorbachev; and the Russian task force, surrounded by hostile Chechens at Grozny airport, retreated, leaving behind equipment and weapons. Russia then imposed economic sanctions, but also attempted to negotiate with Dudayev.

During 1992, as Dudayev obstructed the progress of negotiations and the economic sanctions took their toll, the Chechens became disillusioned with Dudayev. By March 1993, Yaragi Mamodayev, at one time Dudayev's Prime Minister and chief Chechen negotiator with the Russians, had formed an opposition movement calling itself the 'Government of National Trust'; and, in April, Dudayev assumed wider presidential powers and moved to suppress all opposition. But, in June 1993, some of Dudayev's opponents, based in the Nadterechnyy district in northern Chechnya, declared Nadterechnyy's independence of rule from Grozny. Fighting broke out. When, in spring 1994, the Nadterechnyy opposition set up the Provisional Council of the United Opposition (PCUO), led by Umar Avturkhanov, the Russian federal authorities gave the PCUO money to pay local wages and pensions.

In August, the PCUO declared itself to be the Government of Chechnya. The Russian leadership decided to give covert military as well as financial support - though Moscow's military back-up for Avturkhanov's forces rapidly became public knowledge. As fighting intensified between the Chechen factions, Yeltsin called on Dudayev, unavailingly, to disarm his militias. Russian troops were finally sent to Chechnya in December 1994. But the intended policing action turned into a full-scale military campaign.

The quest for peace

There were several initiatives to achieve peace. Since April 1995, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has maintained a permanent mission in Chechnya, to monitor the situation and help broker negotiations.

In May 1995, Russian Prime Minister, Viktor Chernomyrdin, called for peace talks 'at any level', with the participation of the Chechen Committee of National Accord (formerly the PCUO). Representatives of Dudayev, of the Russian Federation and of the Committee of National Accord then met at Grozny under OSCE auspices; but the talks soon broke down.

A hostage crisis in June 1995, when a Chechen separatist guerrilla leader, Shamil Basayev, seized 100 hospital patients and staff in the north Caucasian town of Budennovsk, forced the hand of the federal authorities. They negotiated a cease-fire and, in July, signed a military agreement with Dudayev's supporters, providing for the exchange of prisoners of war (POWs), the withdrawal from Chechnya of most Russian federal troops, and the disarming of the Chechen militias. The agreement, signed by Maskhadov, then a Chechen field commander, and by Gen. Anatoliy Romanov, the commander of the Russian troops, did not, however, tackle the issue of Chechnya's constitutional status.

There was evidence of internal discord on both sides about the terms of the agreement. Dudayev and other rebel leaders gave out conflicting signals about their backing for what Maskhadov had agreed, while Russian Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, and other military figures, criticised the deal from Moscow. Following a bomb attack on Romanov in early October, talks between the federal and separatist sides were suspended.

Agreement on special status

In December 1995, the then Secretary of the Russian Security Council, Oleg Lobov, signed an agreement on the principles of relations between Russia and Chechnya with Doku Zavgayev, sometime Communist Party leader of Chechnya, whom the Russians were about to install as head of the pro-Russian administration in Grozny. The agreement was similar to treaties signed between Russia and the Republics of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan. It authorised Chechnya to conduct its own international and foreign economic relations; to adopt its own Constitution and legislation; to carry out its own budgetary, taxation and policing arrangements; and to decide questions about the ownership, use and disposal of natural resources. But the agreement carried little practical weight, because the separatists had no part in the process and it still fudged the core issue of Chechnya's status and sovereignty.

Yeltsin's peace plan

Early in February 1996, Yeltsin, now under increasing electoral pressure, established two expert commissions to examine how to achieve permanent peace; how to reconcile the existence in Chechnya of two separate leaderships; how to accommodate Chechnya's desire for maximum autonomy within the Russian Federation; and who should negotiate on behalf of the Chechens.

Yeltsin then publicised his own peace plan. Its elements were the ending of Russian military operations and gradual withdrawal of troops, as the existing (pro-Moscow) Government extended its control within Chechnya; discussions through intermediaries on Chechnya's status; a Political Forum, embracing all Chechen groups and Russian federal representatives, to prepare for free and democratic elections to a new parliament; a gradual devolution of power from federal to republican bodies, and, finally, a treaty on the delimitation of powers between Russia and Chechnya.

On 11 April, President Mintimer Shaimiyev of Tatarstan and President Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan were named as the intermediaries, to serve on Chernomyrdin's Special Commission. Ten days later, however, Dudayev was assassinated, and fighting in Chechnya intensified. Soon afterwards, Shaimiyev resigned as a mediator.

Dudayev's successor, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, took a delegation to Moscow to meet Yeltsin. The Russian side included Chernomyrdin and Zavgayev. On 27 May, Chernomyrdin, Yandarbiyev and Zavgayev agreed to:

  • end hostilities at midnight on 31 May 1996;
  • release all hostages within two weeks; and
  • resume talks of the expert commissions (suspended in summer 1995).

Yeltsin then paid a lightning visit to Chechnya - his first ever - to add political impetus to the agreement.

Nazran agreement

On the basis of the previous initiatives, a peace agreement, brokered by the OSCE, was signed at Nazran, Ingushetia, by Maskhadov and Russian Nationalities Minister, Vyacheslav Mikhaylov, on 10 June 1996. The two sides would take steps to halt hostilities; observe a cease-fire; refrain from using weapons or 'special operations' (a term to be defined by a joint working group, consisting of six members from each side and based in Grozny), and begin demilitarising. Russian checkpoints were to be removed from towns, but remain at barracks to protect provisional military forces until their staged withdrawal by the end of August 1996. The release of detainees would be supervised by a joint working group. The two sides also agreed on the need to hold free elections in Chechnya, involving all political forces, after the territory's demilitarisation.

Despite some Chechen calls for all Russian troops to leave, the Russians would continue to maintain two brigades permanently in Chechnya - their Interior Ministry's (MVD's) 101st Brigade and the Defence Ministry's 205th Motor Rifle Brigade.

Amidst mutual recriminations, implementation talks on the Nazran agreement broke down after 10 days. This event coincided with the appointment in Moscow of Gen. Aleksandr Lebed as Russia's Security Council Secretary, to whom the separatists now looked for new ways of unlocking the process. Yeltsin ordered a phased withdrawal of troops on 25 June, but his decree again only took account of the temporary forces; it made no concessions on the Russians' principle that a permanent force would remain. Fighting continued to flare up sporadically, and the Russian troops mounted air and artillery attacks when an ultimatum on the return of Russian POWs was not fulfilled.

Attack on Grozny, August 1996

The Chechen separatists launched counter-attacks, on 6 August, on Grozny, Gudermes and Argun. They timed this to embarrass Yeltsin on the eve of his presidential inauguration on 9 August, and, after severe fighting, they took effective control of Grozny. On becoming Yeltsin's special representative in Chechnya, Lebed flew to Grozny on 12 August and secured a cease-fire. Awarded special powers, including responsibility for the strategic direction of Russian federal policy towards Chechnya, he then engaged in shuttle diplomacy. On 19 August, the Russian military commander threatened to bombard Grozny if the separatists did not leave within 48 hours. Lebed immediately returned to Chechnya and countermanded his ultimatum.

Novyye Atagi, Khasavyurt and other agreements

The progress made at Nazran was then carried forward, in talks held at the Chechen village of Novyye Atagi, 25 km south of Grozny. Lebed and Maskhadov agreed to a partial withdrawal of troops from Grozny and to the simultaneous establishment of a Joint Commandatura, staffed by Russians and Chechens, to monitor law and order, to protect empty houses from looting, and to prevent incidents which could undermine the peace process. Maskhadov and the Russian commander in Chechnya reached an agreement concerning POWs.

In the presence of the OSCE Ambassador, Tim Guldimann, Lebed and Maskhadov signed a joint statement at Khasavyurt, in Dagestan, on 31 August, covering a document entitled 'Principles for Determining the Bases of Mutual Relations between the Russian Federation and the Chechen Republic'. The statement recorded the parties' attempt to create mutually acceptable conditions for a political settlement; their recognition of the unacceptability of the threat or use of force; their acceptance of 'the universally recognised right of nations to self-determination', and of the principles of equality, free will and freedom of expression; and their determination to defend the freedoms of the citizen and to prevent acts of violence towards political opponents.

The main provisions of the Principles document were for:

  • an agreement on relations between Russia and Chechnya, to be reached in accordance with universally recognised principles and norms of international law by 31 December 2001;
  • a joint commission, to be formed from Russian Government officials and representatives of the Chechen Republic, by 1 October 1996. It would monitor withdrawals of forces, combat crime and ethnic and religious strife, and prepare a social and economic programme for the Chechen Republic; and
  • the basing of Chechnya's legislation on the rights and liberties of all citizens (including the right of self-determination), irrespective of their nationality, religion and other differences. These laws must be designed to achieve civil peace.

References in the agreement to the rights of nations to self-determination were not balanced by any reference at all to Russian sovereignty or to territorial integrity. The agreement therefore provoked protests in the Russian Duma (lower house of parliament) and elsewhere, and caused legal circles to suspect that too much had been conceded to the Chechens. Yandarbiyev commented, on 7 September, that the five years accorded for the definition of the status of Chechnya had 'been given not to us but to Russia. We agreed to a compromise in order to give Russia a chance to show herself in a more favourable light to the Chechen people and to the world community'.

The agreement also failed to resolve the issue of whether the two Russian brigades should be stationed in Chechnya permanently or temporarily.

On 1 September, the Joint Commandants in Grozny announced the complete demilitarisation of the city. The following day, Russian and Chechen military commanders signed the Final Act on the Withdrawal of Armed Formations of the Chechen Republic and of Federal Troops from Grozny, confirming that the troop withdrawals had duly taken place - despite claims by both sides that they had not.

Joint Declaration

Chernomyrdin and Yandarbiyev, meeting in Moscow on 3 October 1996, signed a 12-point Joint Declaration, consolidating agreements reached between Lebed and the Chechen separatists - notably those at Novyye Atagi and Khasavyurt.

Particularly important is the Joint Commission, which was established on 10 October under the chairmanship of Georgiy Kurin for Russia and Khuseyn Biybulatov for Chechnya. This body brings together representatives from federal Ministries and from the Chechen coalition; meets at least once a week in Grozny, and works on a basis of consensus within the Russian legal framework. Its decisions are binding throughout the Chechen Republic and the rest of the Russian Federation.

The Commission was tasked to:

  • monitor the implementation of a staged withdrawal of temporary joint forces from Chechnya, and draw up provisions for completing the withdrawal;
  • draw up measures to combat crime, terrorism and ethnic and religious strife;
  • ensure that financial and material resources allocated to the restoration of Chechnya's economic and social infrastructure are used as intended;
  • find ways of restoring monetary, financial and budgetary relations between Moscow and Grozny;
  • provide the Russian Government with a programme for rebuilding Chechnya's economy and social security, and ensure that the programme is carried out;
  • ensure that Government bodies and other interested organisations in the Russian Federation and Chechnya cooperate in providing people with food and medicine; and
  • keep the media informed about the Commission's work.

Priority is being given to compensating families of the dead and wounded, ensuring delivery of fuel and other essentials for winter, creating jobs and improving housing. The Joint Commission was to draw up a plan for these objectives by 30 October.

The Joint Declaration reaffirmed previous agreements on the exchange of prisoners, and it was agreed that there would be a search for captives and the dead. Investigation of assumed burial places would be permitted in the presence of the OSCE, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the mass media.

Top level political changes

It was announced, on 19 October 1996, that Yandarbiyev had appointed Maskhadov Prime Minister of the coalition government of Chechnya. Spokesman Movladi Udugov also stated that Maskhadov had already held the first meeting of his government. These reports followed a statement at a Press conference in Moscow, on 14 October, that Zavgayev was ready to resign in the cause of peace. They also followed an accommodation, reached when followers of Yandarbiyev and of Zavgayev, in Urus Martan, agreed to fill local posts with supporters from both sides.

Udugov, who was closely involved in all the negotiations with Moscow, was himself named Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister.

On 17 October, Yeltsin suddenly announced the dismissal of Lebed from office. Two days later, Ivan Rybkin, former Speaker of the Duma, was appointed Secretary of the Russian Security Council and presidential special adviser in Chechnya. Later in October, Boris Berezovskiy was appointed a Deputy Secretary of the Security Council, with special responsibility for the economic restoration of Chechnya.

Presidential decree and interim agreement

The issue of the two brigades permanently stationed in Chechnya was resolved by a presidential decree. This announced that the troops would be withdrawn to other parts of the north Caucasus. The decision, under which all troops were to leave Chechnya on or before 20 January 1997, cleared the way for Chernomyrdin and Maskhadov to sign an interim agreement, on 23 November 1996, on the principles of relations between Russia and Chechnya.

The interim agreement, to remain in force until the presidential and parliamentary elections in Chechnya on 27 January 1997, was designed to remove all impediments to the free movement of people and goods within the republic and to facilitate its economic and social recovery. It provided for the restoration of transport links, including the reopening of Severnyy airport (which serves Grozny); covered the production and handling of gas and petroleum products, while providing for a further bilateral agreement on the production and processing of oil; and made provision for compensation to veterans of the conflict. The Russian Security Service saw the agreement as one which 'should bring real relief to people and help heal the bleeding Chechen wound on the body of Russia'.

In addition, Rybkin set up a negotiating commission, on 12 November 1996, to operate in parallel to the Joint Commission, and to consider political and constitutional questions affecting relations between the Federation and Chechnya. Rybkin said, on 6 December, that work had already started on drafting an agreement on specific economic relations and a treaty on power-sharing.

An opinion poll, conducted in Russia on 26/27 November, recorded firm support for the presidential decree and a majority view that the preservation of peace in Chechnya was more important that the preservation of Russia's territorial integrity. On 7 December, the Russian Union of Muslims declared its support for the Russian Government's peace moves in Chechnya.

But the decree and the interim agreement were not universally praised. Both the Russian Duma and certain circles in Chechnya spoke of betrayal. Udugov commented that Russian and Chechen personalities who liked shooting were obviously now in the same boat. They appear to have included Chechen field commander, Salman Raduyev, who led the hostage-taking raid on Kizlyar, Dagestan, in January 1996, and kidnapped, but later released, 21 Russian militia in December 1996. On 16 December, while boasting of his readiness to continue the war with Russia for the next 48 years, Raduyev, who is Dudayev's son-in-law and maintains that Dudayev is still alive, said that he regarded the agreements as treason and the forthcoming elections as a farce. Those (as yet unnamed) guilty of the murder of six Red Cross medical staff as they slept, on 17 December, are thought to have committed this atrocity in order to wreck the peace process.

Administrative and political moves by Moscow

Throughout 1996, the power of Zavgayev waned. On 17 November, three days after the Russian Government announced that it would no longer fund his administration, his Prime Minister, Nikolay Koshman, and government resigned; and Zavgayev's mission in Moscow closed on 9 December. At the same time, a mission of the republic of Ichkeria, led by former Soviet diplomat, Sharip Yusupov, started to operate in Moscow. In February 1997, it was reported that Zavgayev had been appointed Russian Ambassador to Tanzania.

It was announced, in December, that the Russian and Chechen Interior Ministries had agreed to cooperate in fighting crime, and that the Chechen Ministry had been renamed the Interior Commissariat. Under the agreement, the Russian MVD and the Chechen Interior Commissariat would open official missions in Grozny and Moscow respectively. And Rybkin announced that the Joint Commandatura offices were to be transformed into MVD bodies and subordinated to the MVD mission that was being opened in Chechnya.

Chechnya's elections

In the presidential election held in Chechnya on 27 January 1997, all 13 candidates campaigned on an independence manifesto. Maskhadov gained an outright victory with 59.3 per cent of the votes. His former deputy chief-of-staff, Vakha Arsanov, ran as his Vice-President. Basayev, whose support was thought to be from young radicals, came second, with 23.5 per cent, and Yandarbiyev third, with 10.1 per cent. Another important candidate was Udugov, who is popular with some radicals and with those who believe that only Islam can combat crime and ensure civil and social order. On 20 February, Udugov was elected chairman of his party, the Islamic Order Union.

The first round of legislative elections was held the same day. OSCE and other international observers reported that both presidential and legislative elections had been conducted fairly and freely. But the results of the latter were inconclusive, and further rounds were held until the parliament was declared quorate, in March 1997.

Maskhadov was inaugurated as President on 12 February. At his first cabinet meeting, on 20 February, he presided as Prime Minister over the outgoing government. He had already appointed Udugov as head of the Chechen State Commission for negotiations with the federal government.


Since the presidential election, both the Chechens and the federal side have expressed readiness to talk and conduct business with one another. After Maskhadov's inauguration, Rybkin spoke of the extreme difficulties along the path to national accord, unity and security and of the need for the Chechen President to 'ensure total respect for the rights and freedoms of the person, religious freedom and the equality of everyone before the law...'

The economy

At present, the effects of conflict are aggravated by Russia's economic sanctions that were formally in place for almost five years from the end of 1991. According to some calculations, between 20-25 million million roubles will be needed to repair the ruined infrastructure. Although the Russians agreed last year that some 3 million million roubles would be made available to Chechnya for reconstruction, nothing like that amount has yet been paid out. For 1997, the federal Government has allocated 757,000 million roubles for economic reconstruction, but the Duma passed a budget amendment which made payment of that dependent on Chechnya remaining within the Federation. Another option, favoured by Rybkin would be for Chechnya to enjoy the status of a Special Economic Zone.

A Russian oil Minister announced, on 31 January, that Maskhadov had guaranteed the unimpeded flow through Chechen territory of oil from Azerbaijan to the Russian port of Novorossiysk. The pipeline, after due repairs, was expected to operate at full capacity from March/April 1997. On the other hand, a member of the Chechen negotiating team, Khozh-Akhmed Yarikhanov, was reported a few days later as saying that, in the absence of the separate bilateral agreement on oil (foreseen in the interim agreement, of 23 November 1996), Chechnya might negotiate directly with the international consortium developing the Caspian Sea oil-fields off Azerbaijan's coast.

Crime and terrorism

Clan warfare and organised crime are deeply rooted, and the country is awash with weapons. Within days of the Red Cross massacre in December, six elderly Russians, and then a family of seven, were murdered in Grozny. Maskhadov has demanded that the competent authorities redouble their efforts to combat crime. On 18 February 1997, the Chechen Interior Ministry announced a significant increase in crime: 40 crimes, including four murders, one kidnapping and six armed assaults, had been committed the previous day.

Several Chechen factions had united against the Russians. But the differences between them have not been resolved. Raduyev has refused to accept the verdict of the presidential election, claiming that a legitimate Chechen President (Dudayev) is still alive; and yet he repeatedly threatened to set fire to three Russian cities on 21 April 1997 - the first anniversary of Dudayev's reported death - as an act of retribution. Maskhadov has warned that the armed forces and Interior Ministry will take 'appropriate tough measures' to suppress any terrorist forays.

Constitutional issues

Under the Khasavyurt agreement, the federal and Chechen authorities have to define the status of Chechnya by the end of the year 2001. But the Chechen side, in particular, wishes to do so earlier.

Although all Chechen politicians are committed to independence, the Chechen Government recognises the benefits of a common economic area and unified monetary and defence systems. The Russian leadership has talked about signing a treaty which would allow Chechnya a broader measure of control over its own affairs than the other republics which have concluded treaties with Moscow. Yeltsin himself said as much on 14 March 1997. Valentin Kovalev, the Russian Justice Minister, has suggested openly, presumably on a personal basis, that the Chechens could be granted sovereignty, and even be recognised as an entity in international law, by analogy with the Tatar Constitution, which enshrines both those elements for the Republic of Tatarstan. It is clear that any formula for Chechnya will need very careful definition: while negotiations continue, the Russians cannot be expected to commit themselves officially to any particular version.

For those advocating a flexible approach, the task now remains of persuading their own hard-liners.


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