Imagine being Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ personal ambassador in Abraham Lincoln’s Washington and you get some idea of the diplomatic challenge facing Salambek Maigov, breakaway Chechnya’s top man in Moscow.
Since February, the 36-year-old economist and scholar has been the designated negotiator in Moscow for the breakaway Chechen rebel government of Aslan Maskhadov, even as Russian President Vladimir Putin presses a bloody and seemingly endless campaign to crush the separatist movement in Chechnya.
Officially ignored but tolerated in Moscow, Mr. Maigov yesterday was in Washington to appeal for U.S. and Western aid and security guarantees to end Russia’s efforts to impose a settlement on his people.
The Kremlin’s efforts to impose its own constitution and local administration on the Chechens are “a farce,” Mr. Maigov said, speaking through an interpreter in an interview near the end of a Washington visit.
“They are an insult and denigration of the very idea of democracy,” he added. “If we continue on the Kremlin’s course, we will just continue on a course of war, violence and human catastrophe.”
Mr. Maigov’s diplomatic forays have clearly stung the Kremlin. He speaks often to the press, and has met with human rights groups, think tanks and U.S. and EU officials.
Sergei Yastrzhembsky, Mr. Putin’s senior spokesman on Chechnya, said the Kremlin had no intention of negotiating with the Maskhadov government. He called Mr. Maigov’s efforts to renew talks “the private matters of a representative whom no one recognizes.”
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov told reporters this week that negotiating with Mr. Maskhadov is equivalent to negotiating with ousted Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar of Afghanistan.
The Chechen diplomat acknowledged that U.S. support for his cause had fallen in the wake of the September 11 attacks, when Mr. Putin closely identified himself with the U.S.-led war on terrorism and Washington muted its previous criticisms of Russia’s actions in Chechnya. Terrorist strikes blamed on Chechens — including the takeover of a Moscow theater last fall and last month’s bombing at a Moscow rock concert — have also damaged support abroad.
State Department officials would only meet briefly with Mr. Maigov at a site outside the department building this week, but Mr. Maigov said he found much more sympathy among Defense Department policy-makers and intelligence analysts, who met with him for a much longer time inside the Pentagon.
He said U.S. officials promised that the issue of Chechnya would be raised by Mr. Bush at a planned summit with Mr. Putin in September.
Mr. Maigov said the Maskhadov government has strongly condemned terrorist strikes targeting Russian civilians, and he said the rebel government was “ready to make real accommodation for Russia’s national security interests in our region.”
But he hedged on whether Chechens were prepared to give up their quest for full independence from Moscow, something Mr. Putin has vowed never to allow.
“We are realists,” Mr. Maigov said, “but one thing we will never allow ourselves to do is to take away the right of future generations of Chechens to determine their political status. That is why it is so important for us to have international guarantees of security.
Mr. Maigov, a onetime political rival to Mr. Maskhadov, served as a minister in the first independent Chechen administration of the mid-1990s. He then was active in Russian politics, even serving in a pro-Putin party, before quitting to take the Chechen representative’s post earlier this year.
Part diplomat, part propagandist, part back-channel conduit, part bargaining chip, part hostage, part Kremlin insurance policy, Mr. Maigov acknowledges his anomalous position in Moscow. His predecessor in the post is currently in London, fleeing terrorist criminal charges lodged by the Kremlin.
“Ever since I was appointed to this post, there is not a single day when I don’t recognize that I might be arrested the next morning,” Mr. Maigov said.
“But I was brought up on the belief that all Chechens must share the same fate, no matter what.”