Russia is groping for a way to end the Chechen imbroglio. But both sides are finding it difficult to set aside years of pent-up hostility to make a deal. The kidnapping of Lt. Col. Sergei Boryayev helps illustrate the difficulties of negotiating an end to the Chechen war.
The first round of Chechen peace talks, held November 18, ended without agreement. Kremlin envoy Viktor Kazantsev said talks focused on the disarmament of Chechen separatists, according to the ITAR-TASS news agency. Meanwhile, the Chechen negotiator, Akhmed Zakaev, denied discussing terms under which separatists would lay down the arms. The starkly differing accounts of the peace talks are representative of the Chechen war. It is a conflict in which the truth long ago was buried amidst the savage conduct of both sides.
The Chechen war has cost Russia dearly, both in the purely financial sense, and in terms of international prestige. The Kremlin now seems eager to end the conflict, but a lack the resources is hampering efforts to reach a negotiated solution. Boryayev's story underscores the severity of Russia's dilemma.
Boryayev, a Russian lieutenant colonel, was kidnapped on September 29. Russian authorities reportedly never tried to negotiate Boryayev's release. Some media have reported that Arab militants fighting in Chechnya executed Boryayev on November 11. A November 13 report on Qatar's Kavkaz Tsentr web site quotes the notorious commander Khattab as saying: "Add one to nine." This is an apparent reference to nine Russian officers who were executed in the spring of 2000.
Khattab, a Jordanian-born warlord, reportedly leads a unit of roughly 200 radicals in Chechnya. Russian officials describe him as an international terrorist. His ability to boast about the apparent murder of a Russian officer hints at how weak and under-funded Russia has left its hostage negotiation commission. Securing the release of hostages is the responsibility of a Russian presidential commission. However, commission members have not been able to travel to Chechnya since June due to a lack of funding.
In the budget approved by the Duma for 2002, there is no explicit provision for work concerning the freeing of hostages. An October 15 article by hostage negotiator Vyacheslav Izmailov, published in Novaya Gazeta, said the budget also does not provide a separate line item for the commission, even though it once employed members of Russia's security services.
The truth about Boryayev's disappearance and apparent murder may never be known. No body has been recovered, leading some observers to express hope that he may still be alive. But the reports about his death shows that the Chechens have not quelled their own extremist elements. The Qatari web site on which Khattab's report was posted has a reputation for publicizing propaganda.
The report about Boryayev's death has been linked to Movladi Udugov. In 1999, Udugov was denounced as a provocateur and forced to flee Chechnya, where a warrant was issued for his arrest. The fact that his name has resurfaced at such a fragile juncture in the quest for peace indicates that peace talks between Moscow and Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov may lack popular support. The episode additionally suggests that both the rebels and the Kremlin are more interested in scoring public relations points at present than in laying down arms.
Instead of seeking a negotiated release, the armed forces tried to free Boryayev by force in late October. There has been no word from the colonel since October 28, when he may have been killed or simply isolated.
The Khattab episode highlights Chechen grievances that could impede a cease-fire. In a radio broadcast shortly after Boryayev's abduction, Khattab promised to trade the lieutenant colonel for the release 25 Chechen women taken prisoner during "cleansings." Members of Boryayev's unit said they were ready to offer $300,000 and release Yakub, one of Khattab's lieutenants. Yet, they declined to negotiate concerning the release of the women. "They aren't to be found. Do you understand?" the web site Gazeta.ru quoted one member of the unit as saying.
Although Khattab demanded the release of 25 women, he never presented a complete list of names. The Russian military, meanwhile, reportedly refused to hold "demeaning talks with the Arabs, " according to Izmailov.
Responsibility for securing the release of Boryayev and other hostages has been assumed largely by volunteers, such as Izmailov, a retired Interior Ministry major and now a Novaya Gazeta correspondent. Izmailov and his colleagues frequently take calls from frantic relatives and try to arrange the release of hostages, working through Chechen intermediaries. In some cases, negotiations involve intricate demands, such as securing clemency for, or the release of Chechen prisoners. But despite their dedicated efforts, they encounter much more failure than success. "I'll be able to help one in five or one in ten, " says Izmailov.
The continuing posturing by both sides indicate that they are not ready to reach a negotiated settlement, Izmailov suggests. "If this was not about PR (public relations) and counter-PR, then we would not be talking solely about Boryayev," Izmailov said in the Gazeta.ru interview. "[We would also be talking about] two other officers of the Vedeno command, also lieutenant colonels. They have been held captive since July. No one is looking for them. There is no news of them."