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Boris Berezovsky, one of Russia's famed "oligarchs" behind Boris Yeltsin, now lives in exile in London, where he spoke with European Viewpoint editor Nathan Gardels on Friday, Sept. 10

From 1996-97, Berezovsky was also deputy chief of the Russian Security Council in charge of negotiations with the then Chechen separatist president, Aslan Maskhadov, whom Russian President Vladimir Putin has labeled a terrorist.

Nathan Gardels: No matter how hard Russian President Vladimir Putin hits Chechnya with his military campaign, the terrorism only gets worse, as exemplified in the horrible school attack in Beslan. What approach to Chechnya is the best hope for stopping terrorism now?

Berezovsky: The first question we have to answer is this: What is terrorism? Certainly, taking 1,000 children and parents hostage at a school in Beslan, ending in the death of hundreds, is terrorism. There is no doubt about this. But when Russian troops under Putin's command commit genocide in Chechnya, killing and wounding 10,000children, is that not terrorism also?

Let's be clear: Terror begets terror. And who is responsible for initiating the terror in Chechnya? Vladmir Putin. Putin is terrorist number one.

It follows that the only way to stop terror now is for Putin to make the decision to stop the war in Chechnya and, like Boris Yeltsin in 1996, seek an agreement with the Chechens through their legitimate president, Aslan Maskhadov.

Only an agreement with him will be effective for the simple reason that you can only make peace with those who are fighting against you.

Moscow is completely contradictory on this point of dealing with Maskhadov. On the one hand, they say, "He doesn't control all the armed groups in Chechnya, so what is the point of making a deal with him?" On the other hand, Putin says Maskhadov's hand is behind all these terrorist acts against Russians. He is responsible. How can it be both? It is not logical.

What we do know is that Maskhadov controls the situation in general . He can influence 90 percent of the situation. And, as I know from my experience in 1996 when I negotiated with Maskhadov for President Yeltsin, once Moscow looks to him, most of the rest of the Chechens will close ranks behind him and he will gain full control.

Unifying the Chechens, not dividing them as Putin does, is the key to ending this conflict.

To be sure, Maskhadov hated Yeltsin, but he agreed to negotiate with him directly because he understood Yeltsin was fighting for the unity of Russia. Today, the story is completely different: Putin is not fighting for the unity of Russia, but against the Chechens. He is a military criminal committing genocide. For that reason, Maskhadov will only agree to negotiate with Putin through international mediation.

Mediation can take place on three possible levels. The best for Russia would be mediation by other CIS (Commonwealth of Independent States) countries such as Ukraine or Kazakstan, Armenia and perhaps even Georgia. They have had the experience of dissociating from the old Soviet empire, and that could bring useful insights for the Chechens.

The second level would be Europe. That would probably be better for the Chechens but more tothe disadvantage of Russia. The third level could be the United Nations, which would be much better for the Chechens but bad for Russia.

Gardels: What would be the aim of negotiations?

Berezovsky: You have to place the Chechnya issue in context. One of the basic principles of a democratic, liberal country is the decentralization of power. In 1993, this principle was incorporated in the new Russian constitution, which enabled the election of governors who were to have control over their regions and mayors who would have control over their cities. The idea was that that power would no longer be vertical, or centralized, but self-organizing.

Of course, the problem was how to promote decentralization ? both as a political system and a market economy ? without disintegration.

That is the democratic dilemma we faced for 10 years under Yeltsin. But we had passed through the worst stages of disintegration and were on the way to constructing a new, more open and autonomous state system.

Putin has moved in another direction: He is trying to restore for Russia the same heavy-handed, centralized system of control just like the old Soviet Union was organized, including through his military campaign against Chechens. This is his big mistake. It didn't work for the Soviet Union, and it won't work for Russia. It is an approach that has made the situation in Chechnya much worse. In this sense, the real problem is not Putin himself but the historically bereft system he is trying to rebuild. The world doesn't work that way anymore. Today's world is about flexibility, pluralism and decentralization.

I am absolutely against independence for Chechnya, as I was when I was chief negotiator back in 1996-97. If we give independence to Chechnya, then the next day we have to give it to Tatarstan, then the day after to Ingushetia and so on. It would mean the collapse of Russia. And I am against the collapse of Russia. The basis for agreement is this: a united economic and defense jurisdiction, possibly with a Russian supreme court, but Chechnya would have political and cultural autonomy. This was agreed already with Maskhadov in 1996-97.

But there are highly influential elements in the Kremlin who don't want this deal. They still have the empire mentality. They say, "Russia is powerful. If the Chechens don't do what we want, we'll just kick them." This is the basic instinct.

Gardels: Putin said recently that he won't negotiate with the Chechen leaders any more than the United States would agree to negotiate with Osama bin Laden. What do you make of that comparison?

Berezovsky: That is absolutely hypocritical. The problem in Chechnya is not international terror. It is a local problem. Osama bin Laden's fight is with Western Christian civilization. Maskhadov is ready to meet with Putin and negotiate. Osama bin Laden is not about to call President Bush. His jihad against the West is non-negotiable.

Look, it is true that some Chechens are terrorists, but all Chechens are not terrorists any more than all Palestinians are. In both cases, the source of the problem is not terrorism itself, but the frustrated quest for self-determination.

If Israel, a tiny country with the most superb security in the world, can't protect its people from suicide bombers and other terrorist acts, how is Russia, a vast country with an incompetent and impoverished security apparatus, going to do so? Russia today is a poor country that is unable to protect itself. Since he has re-centralized power, Putin himself is the one responsible for failing to protect Russians.

As in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, time is running out. Every day the situation is getting worse. Beslan is the proof of this. A new generation far more radical than Maskhadov is arriving, kids who have known nothing but war and grown up with guns in their hands since they were 10 or 15 years old.

At least Maskhadov and his circle, such as Ahmed Zakayev, are people with a Russian mentality and culture. We can understand each other. This next generation is very different. They are capable of anything and willing to fight to the end. Putin's policy has further radicalized this new generation.

That is why it is so urgent now to act. The first step would be for Putin to stop the war without any conditions and withdraw the troops. The second step is to begin negotiations.

(c) 2004, EUROPEAN Viewpoint. Distributed by Tribune Media Services International.
For immediate release (Distributed 9/13/04)