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SHOULD RUSSIA AND THE WEST CONTINUE DIALOGUE ON CHECHNYA?

RIA Novosti

MOSCOW (RIA Novosti political commentator Yuri Filippov) - Russia and the West spent years discussing the meaning of a political settlement in Chechnya. For Moscow, it should mean political integration of Chechnya into Russia, while the West wants the Kremlin to recognize the separatist trend and talk with separatists.

The roundtable of delegates from Russia and Chechnya and West European politicians, organized by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) in Strasbourg this week, showed that the dispute is coming to an end. All delegates, including Lord Judd, the irreconcilable critic of Russia, agreed that the main stage in the political settlement would be the parliamentary election set for this fall. This wording expresses Russia's understanding of the principles of political settlement. The election will be held according to Russian law and after it the state structure of Chechnya will not differ from that of a score of other republics of Russia.

The roundtable and the unanimous attitude of its participants to the main issue were only an individual sign of a much broader trend. The Chechen problem has been losing acuteness in the past few months, receding into the background and sometimes disappearing from the agenda of Russia's relations with the leading European powers. It was unthinkable two or three years ago, when the Chechen problem became the key issue at nearly every international meeting attended by President Vladimir Putin. The West called for talks with the separatists, while Moscow refused to comply, claiming to have its own methods (including political and military ones) for solving the problem.

The dialogue could have lasted many more years without bringing fruit. It became apparent when Russia curtailed the presence of Western non-governmental organizations in Chechnya or its MPs threatened to boycott PACE sessions.

That the Russia-West dialogue on Chechnya was deadlocked became perfectly clear after a part of radical Chechen separatists launched a series of major terrorist attacks against civilians. The Nord-Ost hostage taking and the massacre in Beslan buried the political future of Chechen separatism. By becoming an inalienable part of terrorism, it murdered not only its enemies but also itself. Many Russian analysts believe that the recent death of the living symbol of Chechen separatism, the former president of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria Aslan Maskhadov, became a physical reflection of the political death of Chechen separatism.

The transition from separatism to terrorism changed the essence of Russia-West dialogue on the Chechen problem. The outcome was inevitable, though this did not happen overnight but took months and even years.

The current stage in the discussions of the Chechen problem can be tentatively described as "Western embarrassment." Indeed, the stand of President Bush at the recent Russia-US summit in Bratislava was limited to the vague idea of democracy everywhere in the world, including in Chechnya. The issue was not raised at all at the March meeting of the European Quartet (France, Germany, Spain and Russia) in Paris.

Does this mean that Russia-West dialogue on Chechnya is ending?

In fact, it has ended in the deep political meaning, and it was Russia who put a full stop on the discussion of the meaning of Chechnya and political settlement in it. Chechnya will remain part of Russia and live according to Russian laws, while political contacts with the bulk of separatists are like fraternizing with terrorists. Talks on the surrender of weapons are possible and welcome, and there may be a new amnesty for Chechens who are not guilty of terrorist attacks against peaceful civilians. But what the republic needs above all is economic reconstruction. If Europe can help, Russia will be grateful for its involvement in such settlement.

The latest reaction of the West shows that it is ready to accept, though with some reservations, Russia's attitude to the problem. This is the key factor for Moscow at this stage, and everything else, including the timeframe for ending the counter-terrorist operation (called "war" in the West), is of secondary importance. After the key political tasks are fulfilled, the transition to peace will be a simple technical question for such a powerful country as Russia, especially with the political support of the West.

Russia should continue discussing the Chechen problem with the West, if only to maintain the new consensus on the principles of a political settlement. Roundtables on this issue in Moscow and Grozny will welcome delegates from Strasbourg.



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