Media reports citing “sources in Petrozavodsk” say President Putin may spent two weeks of September at his country residence in Shuiskaya Chapa. Having learned from bitter experience, the president did not take any time off in August this year. And it was just as well, since this “dark month” of Russia’s calendar once again confirmed its bad reputation.

The toll of Russians martyred in the Caucasus rose again – these deaths due to the crash of an Mi-26 transport helicopter near Khankala. The media did eventually publish the list of those killed. Military commanders immediately pointed the finger at the Chechen terrorists as those responsible for the disaster. The website of the separatists was delighted to agree with this theory. Moreover, journalists learned at the headquarters of the federal forces that parts of a Strela portable surface-to-air missile launcher had been found in the ruins of a building not far from where the helicopter went down. The military believes the fatal shot might have been fired from the very same launcher.

The Izvestia newspaper makes a further point: “It is worth noting that the provocative terrorist attack took place within days of a confidential meeting between former Security Council secretary Ivan Rybkin and Akhmed Zakaev, who represents the Chechen separatists in Geneva.” Perhaps the Khankala crash ought to be viewed as a kind of “invitation and warning” from the separatists, meaning that if real peace in Chechnya is the aim, some agreement with them will have to be reached.

But the terrorist attack theory is far from the only one around. The media has started asking awkward questions. Novaya Gazeta asks: “Why was the ill-fated helicopter overloaded like the village bus in Chuvashia which went over a cliff a week earlier? The helicopter was meant to carry up to a hundred people – so why were 147 military personnel packed into it?” And even if the helicopter actually was downed by the separatists, how did they manage to do it so close to Khankala, an area with the highest concentration of federal troops?

Novaya Gazeta notes: “The Mi-26 helicopter crash is only part of the general picture which is looking grimmer with every day. Those who died in this crash make up only part of the overall toll, which is steadily climbing.”

Nezavisimaya Gazeta agrees: “Whatever actually happened to the helicopter, it’s still clear that its passengers have become casualties of the war in Chechnya, to which the government hasn’t been able to find a solution over three years.”

According to Nezavisimaya Gazeta, the worst consequence of the crash might be that nothing will change in Chechnya in the wake of it. The government is taking “appropriate measures” after yet another disaster, but not doing anything to bring the armed conflict to an end.

In the meantime, those civilians in Chechnya who are prepared to cooperate with the federal government and federal forces find themselves in no less danger than military personnel. Nezavisimaya Gazeta has published a long list of civilians who have been killed: Chechen police, village mayors and their staff, school principals and ordinary teachers, and the imams of mosques. Nezavisimaya Gazeta admits that its list cannot be considered complete, but still emphasizes: “If this continues, there could soon be no one at all left in Chechnya on whom the federal government can rely for support.”

But media reports have noted that mourning is not declared when civilians are killed, apart from one recent effort made by Akhmad Kadyrov. Federal artillery from the 70th guards regiment was responsible for shells hitting a residential building: two girls were killed, and their mother later died in hospital. There were three days of mourning in Chechnya, with flags lowered to half-mast and recreational events cancelled. As well as declaring the mourning period, Kadyrov directed some strong words at the federal forces: “We have reached the limit – we can no longer tolerate things like this.”

The Kremlin will now have to take such views into account, says Ilya Milstein in Novoe Vremya magazine: “There is no replacement for Kadyrov in Chechnya.” Milstein refers to the former mufti as “Chechnya’s Talleyrand”. Milstein writes: “Akhmad Kadyrov is bearing in mind that elections will be held in Chechnya several months from now.” Of course, the outcome will be greatly influenced by how the military votes – and of course, the military will vote “as it’s told”. However, the winner of the election will only have a stable hold on power if he can secure the approval of the people of Chechnya, and their votes are much harder to win. “Kadyrov has figured this out, and he’s started campaigning. Days of mourning and anti-military rhetoric are a localized form of PR.”

According to Milstein, this PR effort is even more effective because Kadyrov is being “almost completely sincere”. He really is “sick to death of the federal troops”; still less does he like being known as a collaborator. “So he is fighting his own shameful image and the federal forces, almost as fiercely as he fought during the first war in Chechnya, when he was declaring a jihad against Russia and receiving the National Honor award from the hands of Dudaev himself.”

On the other hand, Kadyrov is an essential status figure for the Kremlin – without him, “the occupation nature of this war would become all too obvious”. And Kadyrov needs the federal forces, since “without them he couldn’t remain in power, or even alive”.

The duality in this situation adds a certain edge to Kadyrov’s anti-military rhetoric. When he calls for the troops to be withdrawn from Chechnya, he occasionally forgets to specify that he’s only talking about “excess forces”. Novaya Gazeta says it sometimes appears that Kadyrov would like to see a Chechnya without a Russian presence at all. However, once he has expressed his feelings sufficiently, Kadyrov inevitably returns to harsh reality: clarifying that he only considers that there are too many federal troops in Chechnya. And this gives Kadyrov a pretext to say once more in his next speech that the federal forces themselves are prolonging the war, and peace would have been achieved long since, were it not for them.

Kadyrov is by no means the only person in Chechnya to hold this view. Novaya Gazeta has interviewed Usman Masaev, deputy head of the Chechnya administration responsible for investment and economic development. He discusses the financial restoration of Chechnya.

The annual budget of Chechnya is 4.5 billion rubles. Mukhamed Tsikanov, a deputy of Economic Development Minister Herman Gref, recently said that 70% of this sum would be used by the end of the year. But Masaev claims this is false, and that everyone knows as much.

According to Masaev, the money allocated for restoring Chechnya’s economy is not actually reaching Chechnya: “It is distributed among 25 federal ministries, agencies, and state committees – in other words, to those who issue the contracts – and they are all in Moscow.” Due to the lengthy process of awarding contracts, as well as paperwork, only 14% of Chechnya’s annual budget was spent over the first seven months of this year – and mostly on paper, at that. But since those Moscow officials (who are neither informed about nor interested in the real situation in Chechnya) will have to write reports at the end of the year, toward that time a lot of completely useless equipment will be hastily bought up at vastly inflated prices (for example, dairy and slaughterhouse equipment, although there are no cattle left alive in Chechnya). What’s more, funding for the installation of such equipment is usually “forgotten”.

Usman Masaev says: “The financial chaos caused by Moscow-based officials is now doing a lot more damage than the guerrillas.”

According to Masaev, if the federal forces would only stop interfering in intra-Chechen affairs and issue no-prosecution guarantees to the separatist field commanders, many of the top guerrilla leaders would quickly cease their resistance. Ruslan Gelaev’s name tops Masaev’s list of field commanders who would be prepared to accept peace.

It’s hard to believe that Gelaev is really prepared to lay down his arms. The Russian military says he and his detachment are based in the Pankisi Gorge; in the words of Vremya MN, this area has long since become a “boil” on the body of Georgia – with the Georgian government having no real jurisdiction over this territory.

According to the media, until recently almost no one apart from the Russian government was concerned about this problem in Georgia. Izvestia recently noted that according to Moscow, there is no real difference between the Pankisi Gorge – the territory where Gelaev, Basaev’s guerrillas, and other hard-line separatists have found refuge – and Afghanistan under the Taliban. Such a statement naturally brings the inglorious end of the Taliban army to mind, and the circumstances which led to that end. Izvestia reports that the Russian government is not ruling out the possibility of launching some anti-terrorist operations along the border with Georgia; “but only on Russian territory”.

In the meantime, the scandal over the Pankisi Gorge being bombed by unidentified aircraft – which flew off to the north, according to the Georgians – has attracted worldwide attention. Georgian Foreign Minister Iraklii Menagarshvili described the event as “a bloody crime committed by the Russian military”. Naturally, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov denied all the allegations.

However, it turns out that the United States, which has seen fit to intervene in this conflict – an apparently unexpected development for the Russian government – is more inclined to believe Georgia’s version of the story, not Russia’s.

“These attacks and their denial by the Russian government escalate existing tension between Russia and Georgia,” said White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, adding that the United States “calls again urgently for a political settlement to the conflict in Chechnya”.

That’s easier said than done. On the one hand, the drawn-out war is becoming increasingly unpopular across Russia. With elections looming on the horizon, President Putin certainly doesn’t need the nightmare of Chechnya, especially since the conflict is now spreading to the Trans-Caucasus.

On the other hand, it seems many people have accepted that this war has moved into the “endless” category. Izvestia comments: “The war has started twice, and ‘ended’ dozens of times.” The federal forces have repeatedly announced that the separatist armed formations have been defeated. As evidence of victory, they have even pointed at the corpse of Khattab. Nonetheless, the war continues.

Whenever a proposal to start negotiations is made, the Kremlin usually responds that there is no one to negotiate with in Chechnya. The top brass is fully in agreement with this point of view. Izvestia quotes Colonel-General Anatoly Shkirko, who commanded the federal forces during the first war in Chechnya: “Those who are once again calling for troops to be withdrawn from Chechnya are traitors to Russia. They have short memories, but big political ambitions, and they are aiming for populism. They forget how entire families of ethnic Russians, Armenians, and other ethnic groups were slaughtered in Chechnya – the Chechens even killed off their own intelligentsia.”

According to Shkirko, if another “peacemaker in a blue helicopter” arrives, as in the days of Khasavyurt, and troops are withdrawn, the outcome will be even more terrible than last time: “The guerrillas will rest, accumulate more weapons, hire more mercenaries, and move into the Stavropol territory.”

Meanwhile, a semi-secret meeting took place in Zurich recently between former Security Council secretary Ivan Rybkin and Akhmed Zakaev, a representative of Aslan Maskhadov. Citing rumors “among the Chechen diaspora in Moscow”, the Moskovskie Novosti weekly claims that the meeting was organized at the initiave of Boris Berezovsky. Rumor has it that the presidential administration also believes this version of events.

There is no question about why Berezovsky, in his present position, is taking an interest in Chechnya: it is understood that Chechnya is the Kremlin’s “sore point”. Manipulating the issue of Chechnya can be used as a means of influencing political decisions – and that’s what Berezovsky is trying to do.

Moskovskie Novosti considers that the Zurich meeting has clearly demonstrated that Maskhadov’s associates and those Russian politicians who are calling for negotiations are prepared to force the pace of events.

According to Moskovskie Novosti, Maskhadov is constantly sending signals to Moscow that he is ready to start negotiations without any demanding any preliminary conditions. This includes a message from Maskhadov that he is in agreement with the plan proposed by Ruslan Khasbulatov.

The national newspapers have run several detailed articles about the Khasbulatov plan; Novoe Vremya magazine has even published the transcript of a discussion among leading political analysts. The plan proposes giving Chechnya special status, backed up by guarantees from international organizations like the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, or the OSCE; followed by complete demilitarization of Chechnya.

During the discussion, Khasbulatov said: “I don’t think Chechnya should be considered a region of Russia any longer, since that idea has discredited itself.” At the same time, it’s understood that public opinion in Russia is unlikely to accept the possibility of Chechnya being declared an independent state. Thus, Khasbulatov is proposing a “specific formula”: Chechnya would remain part of “Russian legislative territory”, with common citizenship, a common currency, and administrative borders rather than state borders separating it from the rest of Russia. The external borders would be patrolled by Russian and Chechen border guards together. This is actually rather difficult to imagine, if one recalls the Pankisi Gorge situation, for example.

Nevertheless, Khasbulatov is certain that special status for Chechnya, together with “a certain degree of international recognition as a state”, is a formula capable of providing a way out of the present cul-de-sac. In his view, the federal government has no time to lose: “The aging leaders of the Caucasus will soon be replaced by younger and more radical politicians. Unlike their predecessors, they are completely alienated from Moscow and the Kremlin.” Khasbulatov emphasizes that an entire generation of “young wolves” has grown up in Chechnya – those with no skills other than fighting.

“When Gelayev marched across the mountains in the direction of Karachaevo-Cherkessia, young men there were waiting for him, longing to join his detachment. Such attitudes are becoming prevalent among the youth of the Caucasus.” Thus, it is in Russia’s own interests to end the second Chechnya campaign, the sooner the better, before it spreads to the whole North Caucasus region or even beyond.

According to Moskovskie Novosti, Rybkin said after the Zurich meeting that Maskhadov doesn’t even object to going back to the terms of the agreement he signed with Boris Yeltsin on May 12, 1997. That agreement would give Chechnya much less sovereignty than the Khasbulatov plan.

Sanobar Shermatov, an observer with Moskovskie Novosti, says Maskhadov’s haste can be attributed to his wish to participate in organizing the forthcoming referendum on a constitution for Chechnya.

The referendum is likely to be held in mid-December; and six months after its constitution is approved, Chechnya will hold presidential elections. Understandably enough, Maskhadov’s supporters are seeking an opportunity to influence the political fate of Chechnya. However, it seems the Kremlin has other plans: no negotiations until the new system of governance in Chechnya is established. In that case, the political chances of Maskhadov and his supporters would be negligible.

However, there is another view of the meeting between Rybkin and Zakaev. Dmitry Bykov writes in the Sobesednik weekly that Ivan Rybkin isn’t much of a political adventurer; but it must be acknowledged that the former Security Council secretary is now permitting himself to make some fairly strong statements. Look at his claim that at this meeting he was representing “the 60% of Russian citizens who do not want the war in Chechnya to continue”. There are two possible reasons for this, says Rybkin: either Putin is now representing only 40% of voters (“and therefore Rybkin has greater legitimacy”) – or Rybkin attended the meeting with the president’s permission.

Perhaps Putin has finally realized the futility of the war in Chechnya – “or Russia’s inability to fight a war with Georgia as well”, since Georgia categorically objects to any “anti-terrorist operation” on its territory.

According to Bykov, only one point remains unclear here: could it possibly be true that the second war in Chechnya was started with the sole purpose of ensuring Putin’s election as president? “And all the demagoguery about fighting international terrorism, which we were apparently doing all alone for two years – was that nothing but a cover operation?”

On the other hand, if the federal government does understand the futility of continuing military operations, “why is it sending secret emissaries to test the water, rather than acknowledging this openly?” Bykov asks: could it possibly want to retain the option of starting a third war in Chechnya in the lead-up to the next elections?

Nezavisimaya Gazeta says that events in the Caucasus are likely to develop independently of any plans made by the Russian government or Russian politicians. The United States is said to be planning to move into the Caucasus. The pretext is very honorable: protecting human rights, and the need to fight illegal armed formations.

Nezavisimaya Gazeta claims that the US military is preparing to establish control not only over Georgia and Azerbaijan (“that has already been decided”), but over Chechnya as well. Nezavisimaya Gazeta quotes “The Financial Times”: “If Russia thinks it can consider sending its troops into Georgia, then it would also be fair to consider the participation of non-Russian forces in Chechnya.” Such participation might start with offering mediation services and end with “sending in peacekeepers, together with personnel to restore infrastructure, and a large package of humanitarian aid.” Of course, there are fears that President Putin would resist any such move: “But a sufficiently large amount of financial support would help to persuade him.”

So the West believes it’s only a matter of how large a sum it would require to “pay off” Russia for the loss of its influence in the Caucasus; and Nezavisimaya Gazeta blames the Russian government itself for this, since it hospitably gave the United States access to Central Asia during the anti-Taliban operation. Now the United States is acting like it owns Russia’s traditional zones of influence: “And within a month of US paratroopers arriving in the Pankisi Gorge, it will be only a question of how far Russia will move back in the Caucasus.”

Still, it is hard to imagine US commandos – accustomed as they are to civilization and political correctness – in the Pankisi Gorge, which the Chechen guerrillas have transformed into one vast holding pen for hostages taken in Georgia. Mostly foreigners – according to Vremya MN, fifty foreigners have been abducted in Georgia so far this year.

On the other hand, Russia shouldn’t really expect Georgia’s current anti-criminal operation in the Pankisi Gorge to achieve anything. According to Vremya MN, local observers report that the exodus of Chechen guerrillas and Arab mercenaries from the Pankisi area was completed late last week – before the start of the operation. Now there is no one left in the Pankisi Gorge for the Georgian interior troops to capture: “The most they can do is confiscate weapons from local residents and bring the activities of drug dealers and other criminal groups to a halt, temporarily.” Of course, this doesn’t mean there are no Chechen guerrillas at all in Georgia – but that’s another story entirely. But the Pankisi Gorge operation is mostly decorative, essentially aimed at impressing observers in the United States.

But Vremya MN notes that the Georgians do understand that the United States is far away, while Russia is very close; so the “unprecedentedly harsh” statement from the White House (as President Eduard Shevardnadze of Georgia put it) is seen as “promising a great deal, but not convincing”.

The Russian media has generally been calm about the statements made by White House press secretary Ari Fleischer. Olga Romanova says in the Vedomosti newspaper that Russia, unlike the United States, cannot fight “for everything it sees as good and against everything it sees as bad”.

Russia lacks “a certain trifle”, and the nature of this was succinctly expressed recently by US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld: “Russia has an economy, a gross domestic product that’s probably about the size of Holland’s. It’s anxious to connect with the West and be seen as an environment that’s hospitable to investment.” Rumsfeld said that by developing relations with nations such as Iraq, Cuba, Syria, and North Korea, Russia loses the confidence of Western nations and their businesspeople, and thus calls its own investment prospects into doubt.

Olga Romanova comments: “It certainly appears that Washington and Moscow are bargaining furiously, unable to agree on the price for Russia’s neutrality with regard to the US operation against Iraq.” And it can’t be ruled out that the coolness in Russian-US relations is a planned move: in the parliamentary and presidential elections, it could be useful for the Kremlin “to play up to the hawks and patriots such as Prokhanov”.

Based on the latest opinion polls, it would seem that Chechnya is not a very useful resource for boosting popularity.

Argumenty i Fakty reports the results of a recent poll done by the Tsirkon agency on which issues citizens would like the government to prioritize. Alas, Chechnya turned out to be last on the list: only 6% of respondents chose that option. It’s interesting to note that two years ago only 2% of respondents chose Chechnya.

Nevertheless, if these results are valid, the president is probably correct in assuming he can permit himself to take a vacation even as the situation on the Georgian border heats up.

The Vek weekly comments that the behavior of the head of state is like a litmus test, an indicator of the situation in Russia. The president is on vacation: that means there’s nothing to worry about. However, if he doesn’t dare to leave the Kremlin even at the height of vacation season – that says a great deal.