The death of Aslan Maskhadov: Shamil Basayev will be the gray cardinal behind the new president of Ichkeria


The death of Aslan Maskhadov doesn’t mean peace in Chechnya: that is the almost-unanimous conclusion drawn by Russia’s media in the wake of March 8. According to observers, the consequences of killing the Chechen separatist leader will be unpredictable.

Valery Khomiakov, head of the Applied and Regional Policy Agency, told Nezavisimaya Gazeta that Maskhadov seemed like a person with fairly moderate views, compared to the people around him. Khomiakov said: “All the separatists are sure to become more radical now, under Basayev’s leadership. I think they will put more pressure on Moscow, intensifying terrorist attacks, in order to demonstrate yet again how effective and self-sufficient they are.”

The Novye Izvestia newspaper presents the opinion of Valery Tishkov, director of the Ethnology and Anthropology Institute at the Russian Academy of Sciences. He says that Maskhadov’s death is unlikely to lead to any fundamental changes in the situation in the North Caucasus. Besides, Tishkov criticizes the state’s manner of announcing the news: Russia learned of Maskhadov’s death on the evening of March 8, when, as Novye Izvestia puts it, “broadcasts of a Women’s Day concert on all state channels were ‘joyfully’ interrupted by footage of the dead president of Ichkeria.” According to Tishkov, “this was overdoing it,” and “might lead to a negative response in the Muslim world.”

Shamil Beno, former Chechen representative with the presidential administration, told the Vremya Novostei newspaper: “The consequences of Maskhadov’s death will affect many areas. Most importantly, the radical Islamists will grow stronger, and the conflict will be prolonged. As people like Maskhadov leave the scene – people who were educated in the Soviet system, who served in the Soviet Army, who read the same books as we do – the common background is disappearing as well. These leaders are being replaced by people who have no idea what Moscow or St. Petersburg or Voronezh are like. They have grown up in the Caucasus during a time of war, and this is the only reality they know. They have no shared history with Russia, so they are not inclined to seek points of contact – but without that, peace is impossible.”

Meanwhile, the Gazeta newspaper emphasizes that Maskhadov always distanced himself from terrorist attacks. Moreover, when he declared a unilateral ceasefire in late January, he even promised to hand over Shamil Basayev to an international war crimes tribunal. Gazeta points out, however, that the federal special services were fairly sceptical about Maskhadov’s statements: “The security and law enforcement people (siloviki) always thought this was just a mask, an attempt by Maskhadov to present himself as a politician with moderate views. The special services maintain that he was at least aware of all preparations for terrorist attacks, or actually participated in planning them.”

Valentina Melnikova, head of the Union of Soldiers’ Mothers Committees (USMC), takes a different view: “I don’t think anyone will want to talk of peace at all now.” Melnikova maintains that it was the USMC’s attempt to start peace talks that provoked the anti-Maskhadov operation: “Somebody was badly frightened by our meeting.” Moreover, Melnikova says she is sure there will be more terrorist attacks: “Now everyone has free rein.” And we should remember, says Melnikova, that after Djokhar Dudayev was killed, “what we got was the capture of Grozny and huge casualties.”

The same idea was expressed by Akhmed Zakayev, now Maskhadov’s former envoy in London. The Vedomosti newspaper quotes Zakayev as saying: “We have been through this before. Yeltsin and his team thought that by killing Djokhar Dudayev they could end the resistance, but that didn’t happen.”

Another London-based commentator, Boris Berezovsky, also maintains that Maskhadov’s death will lead to “an escalation of military action and terrorism.” Actually, in Berezovsky’s view, the death of Maskhadov was solely due to “the stupidity of the Kremlin, which seeks to continue to war, and in so doing is destroying Russia.”

But Shamil Beno says in Vremya Novostei that Maskhadov’s death may not be linked to the recent activization of the negotiation process. Beno says: “In overall terms, it’s a coincidence… After all, no one actually saw negotiations as the objective – not even Maskhadov himself, who was proposing negotiations. He wasn’t making any specific proposals. All his proposals concerned how the war should be fought, but only a very small proportion of Chechnya’s people are involved in the war.”

Novaya Gazeta observer Anna Politikovskaya takes a significantly more radical view of the situation. She says: “Maskhadov shall be remembered in Chechnya. He may even be remembered as a martyr, regardless of all his previous actions.”

Usman Ferzauli, Ichkerian envoy to Denmark and Scandinavia, made the following comments on the circumstances of Maskhadov’s death in an interview with Gazeta: “It must have been betrayal. President Maskhadov’s security was always taken with utmost seriousness. If his location was a secret, how could the federal secret services have learned this information?” Ferzauli promised that the State Defense Committee of Ichkeria would seek out the traitor: “And that person or persons will be punished according to the laws of wartime. That is, executed.”

Meanwhile, Anna Politkovskaya points out another important circumstance: “Maskhadov died during his own extended unilateral truce (declared on January 14), which may not have been very successful, but will still go down in history as the only truce of the second war in Chechnya.” Politkovskaya describes Maskhadov’s initiative as “a sign of goodwill, a hand reaching out to the Kremlin, indicating the wish to work toward starting negotiations on a cease-fire, demilitarization, and exchanges of war criminals.”

Now the ceasefire can be considered over: “Forget it. That’s all. And there will be no negotiations. Forget about that as well; the services of the Committee of Soldiers’ Mothers are no longer required. No other mothers are necessary either. Only wars will be necessary from now on. The prospect of peace in Chechnya is being moved back to distant horizons, nowhere in sight as yet.”

In recent years, according to Politkovskaya, “Maskhadov, almost single-handedly and using the last of his strength, was restraining the extreme radicals among his own forces. A clarification: these radicals believe that any and all measures can be used in fighting Russia, including the kind of measures demonstrated in the Beslan school. Now there is no one to restrain them.”

No matter who is appointed to play the role of leader in the Chechen resistance, the real leader will now be Shamil Basayev, the chief opponent of Maskhadov’s moderate approach. “So, as a result of Maskhadov’s death, what we have in Chechnya are two dominant individuals, equally steeped in bloodshed and a medieval mindset: Shamil Basayev and Ramzan Kadyrov.” The consequences aren’t too difficult to predict, says Politkovskaya: “It means terrorist attacks. Male and female suicide bombers. An Islamic underground retreating further and further into its bunkers. Kadyrov’s clandestine prisons, and Basayev’s bunkers in response to them. People on our side saying: ‘Please don’t take the train today, I have a bad premonition.’ People on their side saying: ‘What else are we supposed to do? You kill our children, we kill yours.'”

Politkovskaya also points out that foreign mercenaries, who are few in number anyway, aren’t the only ones behind Basayev: “Most importantly, behind Basayev is an increasingly radicalized resistance. It is fed by the youth of Chechnya, who don’t know any way of life other than trying to escape the humiliations to which they are constantly subjected by the federal forces, and year after year of attending the funerals of innocent people tortured to death.”

Another source of the Chechen resistance is the Islamic underground: “The longer the war lasts, the deeper this underground becomes, and the more members it gathers; for each jamaat that is destroyed, another is created. This has been the case within Chechnya itself, in the ‘counter-terrorist operation’ zone; and gradually it has also become true in the adjacent regions of the North Caucasus. The existence of an Islamic underground is now a reality in those regions as well.”

Thus, according to Politkovskaya, Maskhadov’s death primarily benefits Basayev: “He has gained what he has wanted for the past decade. And now it no longer matters that Basayev lacks the legitimacy Maskhadov possessed. Basayev isn’t interested in debating legitimacy. He’s interested in methods of preparing acts of sabotage against Russia.”

Vremya Novostei points out that in contrast to Maskhadov, Basayev has never been described as lacking strength and influence. Basayev himself has largely created that impression, claiming responsibility for every major terrorist attack within or beyond Chechnya. Vremya Novostei says: “Basayev, who made his first appearance on Russian television about a decade ago during the Budennovsk hospital siege, is still the face of the war in Chechnya. And there is no sign of peaceful intentions in that face.”

According to the Kommersant newspaper, the West’s response to the destruction of Aslan Maskhadov has been “restrained negativity.”

Kommersant notes that the harshest response has come from Warsaw. Polish Foreign Minister Adam Rotfeld described killing Maskhadov as “a crime” and “a political error.” Rotfeld emphasized that “Maskhadov was the only potential partner” in a dialogue between Moscow and the Chechens, so it is entirely probable that “those who killed him were seeking to rule out any possibility of reaching an agreement.”

The response of the United States and the European Union has been more restrained and cautious. White House spokesman Scott McClellan only repeated the American government’s well-known views regarding the situation in Chechnya, noting that the Chechnya conflict “should be resolved by political means.” Then again, the Vedomosti newspaper adds that Ariel Cohen from the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing Republican think-tank, expects pro-Ichkeria lobbying in the United States to become more intensive, and the Islamists to grow stronger within the Chechen resistance.

Meanwhile, the European Union considers that “as yet, it is unclear how the death of Maskhadov will affect security in the region.” But an official EU representative has already called on Moscow to be more active in pursuing a solution to the Chechnya problem “based on the rule of law, observing human rights and democratic principles.”

Kommersant reports that Rene van der Linden, head of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, expressed the hope that Maskhadov’s death would not lead to a deterioration of the situation in Chechnya, and expressed regret that “it was not possible to hand over Aslan Maskhadov to justice, so that he could answer all the charges against him.”

According to Kommersant, the general opinion of Western analysts was summed up by leading political scientist Zbigniew Brzezinski, former national security adviser in the Carter Administration. After saying that he “resolutely condemns” the killing of Maskhadov, Brzezinski added that “Chechnya no longer has any moderate leaders,” and this will “only strengthen the determination of the Chechens to secede.”

Akram Khuzam, chief editor at the Russian office of Al Jazeera television, told Kommersant that Maskhadov’s death was “a high-level special operation aimed at boosting Putin’s approval rating in the wake of the Beslan school hostage siege.” He added that “numerous special operations within and beyond Chechnya” can be expected to follow.

Killing Aslan Maskhadov was intended to bolster the popularity of the federal authorities, “which has been affected by monetization and pensioners’ protests,” says Alexei Malashenko, an analyst from the Carnegie Moscow Center. Besides, Malashenko told Gazeta, the rating of the special service will be boosted either: “The operation on elimination of Maskhadov looks quite competent in comparison with the recent incidents in Nazran and Khasavyurt.” According to Russkii Kurier, “FSB Director Nikolai Patrushev has gained a pretext to prove the ability of his people.”

In general, says Alexei Malashenko, in killing Maskhadov “the gains balance the losses.” The arithmetic is clear: “On the one hand, we promised to kill Maskhadov, and we have kept our word. If George W. Bush congratulates Putin on ‘eliminating the terrorist Maskhadov,’ that would be a substantial coup for the authorities. On the other hand, we’ve just killed the only person among the Chechen guerrillas who could have been a suitable negotiating partner.”

Meanwhile, says Nezavisimaya Gazeta, “the draft of a team congratulation of the FSB was discussed” at the Duma on getting to know about Maskhadov’s elimination. As a result, the Duma decided that “state awards promised by the president would suffice” for those involved in the special operation. Nevertheless, Duma members were lavish with their compliments.

Frants Klintsevich, leader of the United Russia branch in Chechnya, told Kommersant that elimination of Maskhadov is a tremendous success for the special services. As for Basayev, Klintsevich is glad that he “wouldn’t have the social and political cover now and he would never clear his name of the reputation of an international terrorist and a criminal.” In an interview with Izvestia, Klintsevich added that Basaev’s allies might surrender him very soon, since “after the elimination of Maskhadov, the death throes of the bandit forces will intensify.”

According to Vedomosti, Mikhail Grishankov, deputy chairman of the Duma’s security committee, expects that the guerrillas will receive less funding now. Grishankov said: “Maskhadov’s name made it much easier to raise money.”

State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov was precise, as usual: “Everybody ought to take the same unambiguous view regarding the elimination of an international terrorist: there will certainly be less evil now.”

Deputy Duma Speaker Vladimir Zhirinovsky (LDPR faction) compared the operation in Tolstoi-Yurt with the Battle of Kursk during World War II.

Dmitri Rogozin, leader of the Motherland (Rodina) faction in the Duma, was more skeptical. He told Izvestia that Maskhadov wasn’t as influential as Basaev; rather, “he was the commander of a toy force.” According to Rogozin, “we would like to believe that after the elimination of Maskhadov, active terrorist operations will decrease – but the situation over the last few years shows that Maskhadov was seeking opportunities for propaganda activities more than terrorist attacks.”

Meanwhile, other Duma members that Maskhadov’s arrest would have been much more advantageous for Moscow than his death. “Interrogating such a person would have revealed a great deal,” Vladimir Vasiliev, chairman of the Duma’s security committee, told Novye Izvestia. Deputy Duma Speaker Sergei Baburin holds the same opinion: “We want criminals and ringleaders taken alive. Let them answer for what they have done,” he emphasized.

However, says Novye Izvestia, “all the same, the federal forces are intent on killing the extremist leaders.” Djokhar Dudayev, Arbi Barayev, Khattab, Ruslan Gelayev have been killed in Chechnya; Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev was killed in Qatar. The notorious Salman Raduyev was the only ringleader to be tried and convicted, but even he died in prison two years later.

Novye Izvestia adds that Alexei Malashenko offers an explanation for Maskhadov’s elimination: he knew too much: “But everyone remembers pictures of Maskhadov in the company of practically all prominent Russian politicians during the late 1990s. If he had given testimony in court, it might have led to substantial changes in perceptions of the conflict in Chechnya.”

As for Basayev, according to Gazeta, “it is hardly possible to find a person who is less stained with blood.” This is among the reasons why Basayev cannot become the successor of Maskhadov.

“The new leader mustn’t be stained with crimes, otherwise negotiating with him, as well as the ‘legitimate envoys of the president of Ichkeria,’ wouldn’t even occur to anybody,” says Gazeta.

Therefore, Alexei Malashenko denies that it will benefit Basayev: “Maskhadov and Basayev were like the good cop and the bad cop. Who will represent ‘terrorism with a human face’ in Europe now? Europe won’t talk to Basayev; the Europeans view him as a real terrorist.”

Moreover, the successor to Maskhadov must meet a number of criteria: for instance, he must have influence in the guerrilla circles, as well as contacts with leaders of the foreign extremist organizations which are financing the Jihad. Finding such a person is hard.

According to Gazeta, real power within the Chechen resistance is held by only three or four people; of those, the most likely candidate (besides the odious Basayev) was Doku Umarov – the leader of the irreconcilable wing of the extremists. Gazeta notes that at one time he even promised to “put a bullet in the head” of Maskhadov himself if there were any attempts to negotiate with “the infidels.”

But Basayev has chosen a different candidate. The Kavkaz-Center website has posted Basayev’s announcement: “In accordance with the decree of president of Ichkeria and resolution of the meeting of the State Defense Committee (July-August, 2002), the chairman of the Supreme Shariah Court will become the acting president if the president is killed or captured.” The current chairman of the Supreme Shariah Court is Akhmad Fairuz Sheikh Abdulkhalim. (The Gazeta newspaper gives a slightly different name for this person: Sheikh Abdul-Khalim Saidullayev.)

According to Kommersant, this individual is originally from Saudi Arabia; in Chechnya, he has trained suicide terrorists, and he is valued as “a specialist in the field of Shariah law.” Before the second war began, Abdulkhalim was a judge in the Shariah Court. Kommersant notes that on August 1, 2004, the Kavkaz-Center website published a transcript of a video interview with Maskhadov and Abdulkhalim, in which they claimed responsibility for the guerrilla attack on Ingushetia on July 11. According to Gazeta, “field commander Saidullayev” is implicated in a number of major crimes; however, “he is not on the federal wanted list at this point.”

Maskhadov’s general envoy Umar Khambiyev, currently in France, confirmed to Kommersant that Maskhadov did indeed issue such a decree: “The president knew Abdulkhalim very well, and recommended him as a possible replacement for himself in the event that anything happened to him.”

Sources in the Interior Ministry of Chechnya say that they know Abdulkhalim as a Wahhabi preacher from Argun. “And he is not a sheikh at all,” the source added. “Such a man cannot command the guerrillas. Basayev and Doku Umarov will retain leadership, just as they did when Maskhadov was alive.”

In fact, no one doubts that Basayev will be the gray cardinal (as Echo of Moscow Radio put it), no matter who becomes the new leader of Ichkeria.

On the other hand, says Gazeta, it’s hard to tell as yet whether the field commanders will follow Basayev’s lead in recognizing their new “president.” Some of them – Doku Umarov, for example – might attempt to establish control over the situation themselves.

The only consolation Gazeta offers its readers is the hope that in the immediate future, the guerrilla leaders will be too busy with their power-struggle to organize any more terrorist attacks. The intentions of the guerrillas will become clear once the identity of their new leader is finally decided.

And we will find out about it immediately.