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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Maskhadov's Man in Moscow Looks for Peace

MTSalambek Maigov says peace will only return to Chechnya if Moscow holds talks with the rebels.
Salambek Maigov has been an outspoken critic of the once-independent regime of Chechnya since he lost a race for the presidency there to Aslan Maskhadov in 1997.

But last October, after Maskhadov's public image was deeply tarnished by the Chechen rebels' deadly hostage raid on the Moscow theater, Maigov changed his tune. While Russian officials were doing their best to pin blame for the siege on Maskhadov, Maigov accepted an offer to become the rebel leader's negotiator with the Kremlin.

"Maskhadov remains the only Chechen leader who was ever publicly elected there," said Maigov, 36, in a recent interview. "His influence on his people may seem limited now, but he has a higher political standing than any other Chechen. If Russia is interested in putting barriers to crime in Chechnya, committed both by rebels and federal troops, it can't find a better partner than Maskhadov."

Since his February appointment, Maigov has become an unwelcome entity with Russian officials. Maigov had served as leader of the second-tier Eurasian Party of Russia and had once actively communicated with military brass and the presidential administration. He has since had to suspend his membership in the party.

After the hostage drama, the Kremlin abruptly halted what had been budding dialogue with Chechen separatists. The Prosecutor General's Office rendered terrorist charges against Maigov's predecessor, Akhmed Zakayev, who fought against Russian troops in the first Chechen war. Zakayev is now in London, where a court is deliberating an extradition order to Russia.

Maigov's appointment has had no tangible effect on the state of affairs so far. He said Kremlin officials have not made a single contact with him, official or otherwise.

"Nobody is going to maintain relations with Maigov, as he is a representative of Maskhadov--the nonexistent president of a nonexistent state," the Kremlin's chief spokesman for Chechnya, Sergei Yastrzhembsky, said in a statement shortly after Maigov's appointment. However, Yastrzhembsky added that Russian authorities have no interest in questioning Maigov.

Meanwhile, Chechnya's pro-Moscow head of the interim administration, Akhmad Kadyrov, could not hide his anger at Maigov's unexpected entrance. "I don't understand how it could be possible in a capital of the state where the tragedy at 'Nord Ost' had freshly taken place," said Kadyrov, who had already made public his plans to become the next Chechen president.

Considering the powder keg nature of the Chechen issue, Maigov could be a sensible choice for Maskhadov. Unlike Zakayev, Maigov never fought in Chechnya, and he said he is too well-known among Russia's political elite to fall victim to police harassment. Maigov said his political background also keeps him safe from any crackdown designed by Moscow's hawkish decision-makers to taint the idea of dialogue with Maskhadov.

A graduate of Moscow's prestigious Institute of World Economy and International Relations, Maigov holds a degree in economics. He served as minister of economics in the separatist Chechen government in 1996 and 1997. After losing the presidential race to Maskhadov, Maigov returned to Moscow.

In 2001, he became the head of the executive committee of the Eurasian Party of Russia, which positions itself as a pro-presidential group. Pavel Borodin, the chief executive of the Russia-Belarus Union and an old friend of President Vladimir Putin, is one of the party's top figures. Also, Abdul-Khakim Sultygov, a vocal supporter of Kremlin policies in the republic, was a senior member of the Eurasian Party before his appointment last July as Putin's human rights envoy in Chechnya.

Maigov is critical of Maskhadov's performance as a head of the state, unable to meet the challenges of peaceful state-building. However, he said that Maskhadov could become crucial in bringing stability to the republic, since he is offering the Kremlin a partnership in fighting violence in Chechnya, without attaching any preconditions.

"If Russia agrees with Maskhadov on a cease-fire, it will be a legitimate treaty in the minds of the Chechens," Maigov said. "If any rebel violates it, they will regard him as a criminal and bring him to justice. But they would have a right to expect the same from the Russian authorities if troops commit crimes against Chechens."

The Kremlin reported that in the March constitutional referendum in Chechnya, the vast majority of Chechens voted in favor of accepting Russian law. This announcement, Maigov contended, coupled with the fact that the Kremlin sidelined Maskhadov after the hostage crisis, robbed Putin of any diplomatic solution in pacifying the volatile republic.

"It is a dead end, since without pulling out troops that loot and execute civilians it is impossible to rebuild economy and social life in Chechnya," Maigov said. "In the meantime, it is clear that Chechen resistance cannot be effectively eliminated. If troops leave Chechnya, Russia will loose control over the republic."

In the long run, the referendum may help steer the Chechen separatist cause toward a political debate. It could in fact be the first step in stabilizing Chechnya, Maigov said, if atrocities committed by federal troops against Chechen civilians come to an end.

"But even if the FSB colonel and head of Chechnya's pro-Moscow Security Council, Rudnik Dudayev, admits publicly that extrajudicial kidnappings and executions by Russian military continue with the same pace in Chechnya, it means that the referendum in fact is senseless," Maigov said.

In an interview with Rossia television on April 24, Dudayev said that 219 Chechen civilians were kidnapped by Russian troops since January. Seventy-nine Chechens were abducted in April alone, he said.

This approach to the Chechen problem, Maigov said, is only counter-productive for Russia.

"Following its current line, the Kremlin will never eliminate the terrorist threat to Russia, which was the goal of the whole crackdown on Chechnya in 1999," he said. "Many Chechens, weary of violence, trusted themselves to Moscow at the referendum. If Russia deceives them, they will have no other alternative but total war against Russia."

As a practical step toward stabilizing Chechnya, Maigov proposed returning to a practice of employing joint guard patrols of Russian troops and rebel fighters. In August 1996, such patrols were formed by Maskhadov and Alexander Lebed, then-head of the Russian Security Council. The patrols lasted for only a few weeks, until Russian troops withdrew in defeat, leaving Chechnya to de facto independence.

Keeping Maigov on the porch without inviting him in suits the Kremlin's current policies in Chechnya, said Alexei Makarkin, a political scientist at Moscow's Center for Political Technologies.

"At any moment he can be used for secret contacts with separatists, which were totally cut after Nord-Ost," Makarkin said. "Also, the mere fact of Maigov's existence serves to soothe Europe, which insists on talks with separatists as part of the political process in the republic."

The Kremlin, which has registered Kadyrov's continual attempts to thwart Moscow's proteges in Chechen, can also use Maigov to show Kadyrov that he is not the sole master of Chechnya's future. "This is why Kadyrov reacted so emotionally on Maigov's appearance," Makarkin said.

Additionally, Makarkin said, since Moscow has not acknowledged Maigov as an official negotiating partner, the Kremlin can get rid of him at any moment it finds suitable.