"Khas" - A Chechen Sly as a Fox
Petra Procházková, special to Prague Watchdog
He was sitting on an old, unused radiator, unmindful of the metal grill that surely pressed into his backside. Neither the sounds of exploding grenades several meters away, nor the barrage of tank artillery appeared to disturb him. Nearby the Russian Parliament building, with its walls damaged and weakened, was markedly vibrating, and the dead bodies strewn about obstructed all who were trying to flee. Yet this man, with a thick mane of hair and his chest enveloped in a bulletproof vest, surprisingly did not move a muscle. He did not look at all like the general of an insurgent army. But he was - at least for several minutes up until the moment when he became the most prominent captive in the land.
Ruslan Khasbulatov, chairman of the Supreme Soviet (as the Russian Parliament was called in 1993), had lost one of his biggest battles; and very few believed he would ever again be able to hold his head up high. More than likely, by trying to overthrow his former friend, Russian President Boris Yeltsin, he would be spending the rest of his life in prison.
At the end, though, he was unable to work his way up into the highest political echelon. Yet the time he spent behind bars lasted only five months - from October 1993, when Yeltsin’s loyal army defeated the rebels, until February 1994, when the new parliament, the State Duma, granted amnesty to the them.
A womanizer with a lopsided smile
Even though these dramatic events aged him and his countenance became sadder, women still considered him a very attractive man, despite not being very tall, not very muscular, and not even very gallant. On the contrary, his behavior is renowned in parliament for insulting women. One of his famous replies to an objection raised by a female parliamentarian was that he, as head of parliament, was entitled to “hit below the belt.” “All that you have below your waist means absolutely nothing to me,” he sharply retorted. The majority of male members roundly applauded him; and all the members appreciated his deftness at sarcasm. However, after his unsuccessful coup, that lopsided, seductive smile, which captivated the heart of many beauties, was the only thing left to this legendary womanizer.
It wasn’t until this past summer that his name once again began to appear on the front pages of newspapers. Khas, as journalists nicknamed him, loudly exclaimed that he is the leader of the Chechen nation and expects to win in the upcoming presidential election on October 5. However, after a stormy beginning, at the last minute he changed his mind and bowed out of the race.
The nation’s elite
Even though Khasbulatov permanently resides in Moscow, his countrymen continue to regard him as their nation’s elite, just as they do Jokhar Dudayev, the former president of their insurgent republic. Although Caucasian, Dudayev rose to become general of the Soviet’s Strategic Air Command; and Khas, as head of parliament, became the second most powerful man in the land. For natives of a country whom Russians consider an age-old enemy - and probably trust as much as an American customs official does anyone who holds an Afghani passport - this was quite a successful achievement.
Khas’s domain is intrigue. He is an excellent speaker, has a compelling presence and a sense of humor, and it is impossible to deny that he has a given talent for manipulation. But he is not very good at using a Kalashnikov submachine gun. He has only held it a few times in his life, and that mostly while posing for photographs. But that doesn’t matter. Chechens not only admire physical strength, but also an ability to attain academic skills and high political positions. And when someone succeeds in the enemy’s camp, he is valued even more. It is great medicine for the Chechens’ slight inferiority complex.
That is why Khas, after announcing his candidacy, received the support of a significant number of Chechen voters. According to sociological surveys, his position hovered between first and fourth place, with a 12 to 18-percentage point. Yet he always placed well ahead of Akhmad Kadyrov, the current Moscow-backed leader of Chechnya. And considering that Kadyrov himself initiated other surveys that showed Khas as not having the slightest chance of winning is, for obvious reasons, inconclusive.
That is why someone could be surprised that such a favorite frontrunner suddenly withdrew from the race. And he did that several days after publicly stating that “My pre-election team consists of the entire Chechen nation.” Perhaps Khas felt that one should never play the starring role in a farce twice in a lifetime.
A hero of a cheap novel
The dream to govern and control is a dominant factor of his personality. A high degree of intellect, however, prevents his repeating the same old mistakes. Yet he doesn’t plan on giving up; he’ll use whatever means it takes to achieve his goal. It seems he learned that lesson as a child; and takes great pleasure in saying that his childhood was tough.
Khas was born in November 1942, in Grozny. But his formative years, as with the majority of Chechens, was spent in exile in Kazakhstan. His father died prior to the family’s evacuation; so 14-year-old Ruslan, along with his two brothers, had to help feed their mother and sister. He graduated from the Moscow State University and today proudly calls himself an academic, a Doctor of Science. As head of the World Economic Faculty at the Plekhanov Academy, he prefers to present himself as a scientist and economist, rather than a politician. A life story that’s often only found in cheap novels.
However, the other turn of events in his life resemble a handbook for Komsomol, the communist youth organization. Khas became a member and eventually worked his way up into the Department of Propaganda and Agitation of Lenin’s Central Committee of the Soviet Komsomol. It is hard to suspect his motives since his focus has always been on the end result. He always did what, at the moment, supported his Olympian climb to the top of the political mountain. But when he was nearly there, he made a huge mistake. He wanted to climb even higher. But Chechens, as a rule, do not become presidents of Russia. Ruslan’s smugness and lack of foresight made him forget this and, as a result, he very nearly suffered dire consequences.
Nevertheless, no unpleasant occurrence ever brought him to his knees. After the first Chechen war broke out in 1994, he tried to assert himself as a peacemaker. And from Tolstoi-Yurt, a village where his clan lived, he led a so-called peace group, whose only weapon was one armored vehicle. Needless to say, his peace plan was not accepted and so he quietly returned to Moscow.
He reappeared in Chechnya again in 1996 upon learning that his brother, a poet, had been kidnapped. Khas even made use of this incident to become politically visible. To this day he insists that the people who tried to prevent his taking part in the upcoming presidential election, acted in similar fashion as his opponents did back then. In reality though, he had no chance whatsoever against Aslan Maskhadov, who eventually became the President of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria in 1997. And it seems Khas’s brother was abducted solely for the ransom. “And I’m still paying back the money to my creditors,” complains the academic.
Recently he has become famous for his scientific work on economics and war. He figured out that the war in Chechnya cost the Russians up to a billion dollars, with damage amounting to more than 100 billion - numbers that both Russians and Chechens love to hear. And that’s what Khas wants - to be highly accepted. And that’s why, when expressing his opinions on basic issues, he does so slyly, like a fox. He both approves and rejects amnesty for those who fought in the war; on the referendum he announced that “It is the highest rung on the democratic ladder….but the conditions of occupation….present a horrific experiment of a nation’s suffering.” He sees the future of his homeland in the same way - talking about international autonomy within the Russian Federation. He criticizes the Kremlin, but doesn’t praise the guerrillas. In the matter of no one knowing how to resolve the Chechen issue, this is an attractive posture that a great many Chechens would support. Even Russians.
Khasbulatov will never give up being visible; he believes he will once again walk everywhere with federal bodyguards following behind. But he hopes this won’t happen just now as it might mess up his ideas of a glowing future. One day his opportunity will come. In the meantime, he’s willing to bide his time.
Petra Procházková is a Czech war correspondent, who covered, among other things, both wars in Chechnya. The Russian authorities considered her persona non grata and ejected her from Russia in 2000. She was denied an entry visa for five years. Then she got involved in humanitarian activities. Eventually, she resumed her work as a journalist.
Prague Watchdog recommends you to read her account of war reporting: Absorbing and Conveying Disasters.