Both Chechen separatist rebels and Moscow-backed politicians must make major concessions for the region to break out of an endless spiral of war, organizers of informal talks on Chechnya's future said.
Chechnya's Moscow-backed President Alu Alkhanov and the region's mainstream mufti, Akhmat-Hadji Shamayev, were expected to attend Monday's talks in Strasbourg, but Chechen rebels have been excluded from the meeting, said Andras Gross, who organized the event on behalf of the Council of Europe, the continent's top human rights watchdog.
Attendance at the talks is conditional on participants recognizing "the territorial integrity of the Russian Federation and not using terrorism as a method to achieve goals," Gross said Sunday. The final list of participants were not be made public until yesterday morning.
The talks are unlikely to bring a major breakthrough in Russian-Chechen relations, but organizers hope they will be a first step toward drawing up a peace plan for the region.
"These talks will be about creating conditions under which both sides could sit at a negotiating table again," said Gross, a Swiss legislator. "We're hoping that this round table is successful and we'll be able to organize another round of talks in the future in which perhaps people like [London-based Chechen rebel envoy Akhmed] Zakayev might be able to participate."
Russia alleges that Zakayev was a senior military commander who fought against its troops in the late 1990s. It accuses him of kidnapping and of involvement in the killing of more than 300 military officers, charges that Zakayev denies.
Moscow has repeatedly refused to negotiate with Chechen rebels, labeling them as terrorists.
Gross said some level of discussion was essential in order to achieving peace in the region.
"You have hard-liners on both sides, people who refuse to talk," he said. "This must change. They must make concessions."
Moscow had staunchly rejected calls by rebel commander Aslan Maskhadov, who was killed earlier this month by Russian security forces, to negotiate a peaceful end to the conflict. The Kremlin accused him of involvement in attacks such as the Beslan school raid last September which left more than 300 people dead, and the seizure of a Moscow theater in 2002, in which 129 people were killed.
"Maskhadov was ready to soften his stance," said Gross. "His killing was a serious political error."
A comparative moderate, Maskhadov led separatist forces in Chechnya that fought the Russian army to a standstill in 1996, then was elected president of the republic when the Russians withdrew.
But Gross added that Moscow should not negotiate with people he labeled terrorists, "people who take children hostage and murder them."
Chechen warlord Shamil Basayev has claimed responsibility for the Beslan school raid.
Some 60 politicians, representatives of non-governmental organizations and international experts were to take part in Monday's talks, including Vladimir Lukin, the Russian Commissioner for Human Rights; Ruslan Badalov of the Chechen Committee of National Salvation, and a representative of The Russian Chechen Friendship Society, a human rights group that monitors violations in Chechnya.
Based in the western Russian city of Nizhny Novgorod, the group has recently been targeted in a Russian media campaign associating it with Chechen terrorism, and has faced threats from a shadowy group called the "Young Patriotic Front."