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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Chechnya's Status: Bilateral Treaties Return

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Earlier this month, the first meeting of the working group for strengthening social accord in Chechnya and preparing a treaty on demarcating powers and competencies between the federal center and Chechnya was held under the chairmanship of presidential administration head Alexander Voloshin.

Work on drafting a bilateral treaty is very much in line with the Kremlin's attempts to force "peace" onto Chechnya in the run-up to the presidential election in March 2004. However, it flies in the face of Moscow's centralization and unification drive, which has involved tearing up the ad hoc bilateral treaties that existed between the federal center and the regions.

From the end of 2001, under pressure from the federal authorities the majority of the 42 bilateral treaties signed between 1994 and 1998 were annulled. Only eight treaties remain in force. Those regions that yielded to the Kremlin's persuasion, however, were the ones whose treaties gave them few real privileges. Those that have something to lose, on the other hand, have stuck to their guns. Among them are a number of ethnic republics, Moscow and Sverdlovsk region.

The idea of drafting a bilateral treaty with Chechnya was articulated by President Vladimir Putin back in March, and served to revive the practice of ad hoc bilateral treaties, which many thought had been killed off conclusively by the Kremlin. Since the spring, negotiations have been conducted between the Kremlins of Moscow and Kazan over a new bilateral treaty with Tatarstan. And in May, the newly elected legislature of Bashkortostan created a special commission to reanimate the republic's 1994 bilateral treaty, and in particular to restore the previous practice of the republican, rather than the federal, authorities appointing regional judges and law enforcement heads.

This would seem to be proof of a fundamental change in the position of the Kremlin vis-a-vis "problematic" regions. The only question is whether it is a strategic change of course or a tactical move in light of the upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections, in which the Kremlin will have to rely heavily on the support of the stronger regional leaders to deliver the vote. It is probably no coincidence that the majority of regional leaders who have preserved their special treaties with the federal authorities are members of the higher council of the pro-Kremlin United Russia.

The idea of concluding special treaties with specific regions arose in the spring of 1992, when Chechnya and Tatarstan refused to sign the Treaty of Federation. Tatarstan, by signing a separate treaty in February 1994, demonstrated its strength in political bargaining with the Kremlin. A treaty with Chechnya, however, was never signed, as war broke out.

After this, bilateral treaties were frequently used by Moscow as an element of political bargaining with the regional elite. The commission responsible for handling bilateral treaties was only dissolved in 2001 with the formation of the commission under presidential aide Dmitry Kozak. And the peak of bilateral treaty signing came in 1996 during President Boris Yeltsin's re-election campaign.

As far as Chechnya is concerned, the first treaty demarcating powers between Moscow and the government of Doku Zavgayev (immediately after the Moscow-organized Chechen presidential election) was concluded in December 1995. Next came the Khasavyurt treaty of August 1996 and various agreements in November 1996 -- under these, the issue of Chechnya's status was simply put off for five years until 2001. Thus, the treaty currently under discussion will be the third.

In his address to the Chechen people on the eve of the constitutional referendum in March, Putin talked of broad autonomy for Chechnya in the framework of the Russian Federation. After the adoption of the constitution, the aforementioned working group was set up and in October, on the eve of the Chechen presidential election, it is to deliver its proposals.

As the presidential elections draw closer -- first Chechen, then national -- Moscow is increasingly putting its weight behind the pro-Moscow Chechen leader Akhmad Kadyrov, largely because the Kremlin has no other candidates capable of controlling the situation in the republic.

And even if it did, there probably is not enough time left to promote them.

Paradoxically, having fought against the separatism of the regimes of Dzhokhar Dudayev and Aslan Maskhadov, Moscow is now tormenting itself with the potentially more, not less, dangerous separatism of the former mufti Kadyrov. And not only that, but is obliged to do its utmost to bolster his personal power.

By acting pre-emptively and widely publicizing his bilateral treaty draft even before the first meeting of the working group, Kadyrov has effectively pushed Moscow into a corner. In Kadyrov's draft, the treaty has primacy over federal legislation; Chechnya gets its own national bank, hard-currency reserves, and can open representative offices abroad. It also has the sole right to exploit natural resources on its territory.

There's not much room for compromise given the current circumstances, and the final version of the treaty will, most likely, resemble the Kadyrov draft quite closely. Moscow has, however, included a final line of defense: The treaty must be ratified by the Federation Council within two years otherwise it loses its legal force.

But this will mean that a treaty with unclear legal status will acquire the force of a federal law -- thus, the ratification process is somewhat double-edged.

Politics is, as they say, the art of the possible. And assessments of the effectiveness of the course chosen by Putin to regulate the situation in Chechnya differ.

It is revealing, however, that having started out with a (not unsuccessful) centralization and unification drive, the Kremlin is now being forced to make compromises -- both vis-a-vis Chechnya and a number of other regions.

This not only demonstrates the advantages of pragmatism over an excessively rigid approach, but also shows the ability of the Kremlin to learn from its mistakes and correct its line accordingly.

Nikolai Petrov, head of the Center for Political and Geographical Research, contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.