An interview with Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov by IWPR

Questions were sent by IWPR's Caucasus Editor Thomas de Waal via an intermediary in March 2002 and answered in late April, before the death was announced of the Arab warlord Khattab. They were returned to IWPR in early June. Maskhadov recorded his answers on cassette.

Q: What is the general situation in Chechnya at the moment? What can you say about the 'clean-up' operations by Russian troops, about the level of resistance of Chechen fighters, about losses on both sides?

AM: The general situation in Chechnya is dictated by the logic of a protracted war that is senseless for the men who began it. Almost three years after the beginning of the second war, the Russian side has not achieved any of its aims. At least they have not managed to break the resistance of our warriors and they will not be able to. As a result of this all the rage and cruelty of the occupiers is falling on the civilian population. And recent months have been especially hard for the inhabitants of the foothills and mountains of Chechnya. Every day Russian troops are carrying out endless 'clean-up' operations in these places, with robberies, murders and disappearances. General Moltenskoi devised his new tactic (ceaseless brutal clean-ups) with the idea of bringing people to the point where they would catch our warriors themselves and give them up to Russian forces. But it seems that the general is ill acquainted with the history and mentality of our people. And he also forgets that the men whom he is asking to be given up are the brothers, sons, husbands and fathers of the people his soldiers are subjecting to daily tortures and humiliations.

Recently [at the end of March] the general, wishing to come across as a champion of human rights, issued an order requiring the search operations be carried out in the presence of a member of the prosecutor's office and the local administration, that the armoured vehicles which took part in the operation have numbers on their hulls and the soldiers identify themselves in the houses of people they were making checks. This order was advertised by [Sergei] Yastrzhembsky [the main Russian spokesman on Chechnya] in the media pretty much as though it was the UN Declaration of Human Rights. However in reality it turned out to be just a propaganda trick. In the latest operations in Tsatsan-Yurt, Kurchaloi, Gekhi and other places the same scenes were repeated - there were armoured personnel carriers without numbers, OMON troops in masks, beatings, robberies and dozens of people disappeared without trace.

Even if General Moltenskoi wanted to, he is incapable of reining in the fighters who are out of control and long ago forgot what army regulations and order are. From the beginning they are recruited to carry out punitive operations against civilians and have turned into real bandit formations under cover of being state structures.

As I said before, the Russian side has completely turned on the civilian population. They keep away from the places where our units are deployed. Even though attacks on Russian army columns and checkpoints have not stopped for a single day. Diversionary raids are carried out on the points where enemy units are deployed. The daily losses of Russian forces vary between ten and 50 in men killed alone. There are losses on our side. That is a fact of war. But they are significantly fewer than the enemy's because we are using partisan tactics and act in small groups and do not allow large numbers of men to be concentrated in one place.

Q: What is your status now, as your presidential term has expired, but new elections have not yet been held? How do you see the resolution of this problem?

AM: There cannot be some special solution for this problem in our republic. We strictly follow the dictates of international law and our constitution. Until fighting ends and there are conditions, which allow the free expression of will by the people, there can be no elections and elections are not held in these circumstances anywhere in the world. As soon as the fighting stops and the right conditions are created I will be the first with the initiative to hold elections in the republic. I assure you, it would be much more pleasant for me to be an ordinary voter in peaceful Chechnya than the president of a republic at war. So, whether the Russian authorities like me or not, to end the war they will have to hold negotiations with the legally elected authorities of Chechnya, headed by President Maskhadov. If they want to keep on repeating that the puppet regime of [Russian-appointed leader Akhmad] Kadyrov is the lawful authority in the republic, let them summon him to Moscow and sign any agreement with him on ending the fighting. We'll see how that works out.

Q: Do you have any contact with any Russian officials and, if so, what are you discussing?

AM: I do not have any direct contacts with the Russian leadership. I have appointed Chechnya's deputy prime minister Akhmed Zakayev to make these contacts. He met the president of Russia's representative for the Southern Federal District, Vladimir Kazantsev and keeps up contact with him. But it has not got beyond general conversation. The Russian side is too afraid of its generals to have serious concrete discussions with him.

Q: In the opinion of many people in Chechnya and outside Shamil Basayev and Khattab bear a large degree of responsibility for the second war in Chechnya. Do you believe they still enjoy support in Chechnya and it is possible to seek a way out of the situation by removing them from the game?

AM: It would be naпve to suppose that the fifty or so volunteers who set off with Basayev to Dagestan, which was at that time totally gripped by an internal conflict (in the Tsumada and Botlikh regions and the villages of Karamakhi and Chebanmakhi), were the reason for such a wide-scale war, which has lasted for almost three years. In case the Russian public was not convinced that this was reason enough to begin a massive war (Dagestan is far away and few people understand what goes on there), they also engineered the explosions against buildings in Moscow and other Russian cities and blamed them on the Chechens. So the war against Chechnya was planned before and was not the result of a chain of accidental events.

But that does not mean that the leadership of Chechnya welcomed or encouraged Basayev's actions in Dagestan. Quite the opposite. I called for an early meeting with the leaders of Dagestan and the other North Caucasian republics to combine our efforts and work out ways of not letting such conflicts occur. The first man to reject the idea of this meeting was the leader of Dagestan, as strong pressure was put on him from Moscow; for them the whole planned invasion of Chechnya would have been put under threat if the meeting had taken place.

All these things are now well known to the public thanks to the revelations of one of the players of this game, Boris Berezovsky. The current Russian leadership is trying to present it as though only he was responsible for all this. But he is only one of the players in the game and not the main one.

As for Basayev and Khattab, they are active participants in the resistance movement and their removal from the game, as you put it, can only weaken overall resistance and not bring the end of the war any closer.

Q: Everyone understands that this time Russian forces will not simply leave Chechnya and that in both Russia and Chechnya many people are suffering a great deal because of this. What concessions are you ready to make in order for the bloodshed to stop? Are you ready, for example, to agree to a freezing of your independence declaration in return for genuine negotiations?

AM: As we understand it, independence means above all independence from the whim of bureaucrats, who sit in Moscow offices somewhere and decree the fates of our people without facing any punishment. Genocide has continued for several centuries now and no one has borne any responsibility for it (true, the recently formed UN Human Rights Criminal Tribunal does inspire some hope).

Armed resistance is a means of self-preservation when no other methods of defence are available. International institutions, charged with defending us and created specially for that purpose are unable to do so. Nor can the world community, which can raise its voice in defence of the Bosnians, the Timorese, the Hutus and Tutsis, the Kosovars, the Croatians and so on. In their case prominent states have the courage to send peacekeeping forces to the conflict region, impose sanctions on aggressor countries, establish international tribunals and so on. In our case, all our efforts lead only to statements by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and human-rights organizations and a handful of politicians, whose conscience and civil courage does not permit them to remain silent about the horrific crimes which are being committed in Chechnya.

So ending resistance will not guarantee for us ending the genocide. Rather the opposite. Being undefended would make us even more vulnerable in the face of the arbitrary behaviour of the Russian military machine.

I want to be understood correctly. Independence is not a whim or an ambition. It is the necessary condition of our survival as an ethnic group.

If Russia is prepared to undertake internationally, through the mediation of other states or international organizations, that from henceforth it will not allow itself any more armed aggression against Chechnya, if Putin is replaced by Ivanov or Ivanov by Sidorov, or in the case of any political change-over, then we are ready to discuss any questions with the Russian side, including questions of independence. Of course we well understand that we are not situated on some island, somewhere in the ocean, but next door to Russia and in some places our border runs down a country road or through a ploughed field.

We are in the same economic, energy and ecological space as Russia. We share the same water resources, transport communications and many other links. So, if good will can be found, no obstacles are insuperable.

Q: What can you say about Ruslan Gelayev, his presence in the Pankisi Gorge and his raid into Abkhazia last year? In whose name was and is he acting?

AM: In any war and especially in one so bloody and protracted as the current one in Chechnya transformations occur which are hard to understand for a person who is far away from events. Ruslan Gelayev has long been absent from Chechnya and I cannot say whether he is in the Pankisi Gorge or somewhere else. I have not given him any order to leave the territory of Chechnya and I await his explanations.

This article originally appeared on June 13, 2002 in the Caucasus Reporting Service, produced by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting,


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