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September 29th 2003 · Prague Watchdog / Ilya Maksakov · PRINTER FRIENDLY FORMAT · E-MAIL THIS · ALSO AVAILABLE IN: RUSSIAN 

Aslan Maskhadov: Five Steps into History

Ilya Maksakov, special to Prague Watchdog

Shortly before the upcoming presidential elections in Chechnya, a press conference was called by several deputies of the Ichkerian Parliament formed in the 1997 elections, commonly referred to as the "Maskhadovian" parliament. Isa Temirov, who calls himself acting Speaker, announced that a motion to impeach "President of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria" Aslan Maskhadov had been made by 42 of the 43 deputies who are still alive today.

Naturally, the Chechen separatists' media immediately asserted that this was all untrue, adding that the deputies who appeared in Moscow were usurpers; and in order to be convincing, they published a statement by the "true" parliament, headed by a different Speaker.

Several obvious conclusions can be drawn from this incident: First, that the so-called impeachment was aimed at serving a political purpose - to prove to the international community that Maskhadov is being deprived of even a hollow legitimacy. It is no accident that prior to this press conference the “Maskhadovian” deputies met with Akhmat Kadyrov, head of Chechnya's Moscow-backed administration and a heavyweight candidate in the upcoming presidential elections.

Secondly, if not all of the 42 deputies sided with Moscow, then a significant number surely did. Therefore it must be assumed that this number greatly exceeds those who sided with Maskhadov (although, neither party has publicized a precise list of "their" deputies).

And thirdly, although Maskhadov’s presidency is considered an important issue, it is also the cause of much pointless intrigue in the struggle for legitimacy.

The Most Famous Chechen

Aslan Maskhadov (Aslan is not a Moslem name, so he chose Khalid instead), regardless of his future, will surely remain part of Chechnya’s history as an ex-president publicly elected to become president. No Western, Eastern, Russian or Chechen top official considers him to be the incumbent president. In documents of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe he is referred to as “the last elected president.” Needless to say, after the October 5 election, regardless of its assessment, it will be necessary to change even this term.

Maskhadov, like most Chechens his age, was born in Khazakhstan, where the Chechen and Ingush nations had been deported on Stalin's order. In 1972 he graduated from Tbilisi Artillery College. From 1981 to 1986 he served in Hungary and Lithuania where, in 1991, he helped the Soviet Army capture the Vilnius TV tower - an act he now regrets.

In 1992 he returned to Chechnya and in 1993, because he took part in suppressing the anti-Dudayev opposition, was appointed Chief of the General Staff of Chechen forces, where he learned how to organize military operations, which were quite different from his artillery training. This was his first step into history.

The first war in Chechnya became a decisive moment in Maskhadov’s life. Within the ranks, a somewhat precise one-man management existed, so that all soldiers obeyed him. Maskhadov himself was subordinate to Dudayev, until April 1996 when the first Chechen President was killed by a Russian missile. After Dudayev's death, Maskhadov became the military and political leader of Chechen separatists as the presidency of Zelimkan Yandarbiyev was more or less nominal.

Maskhadov became if not the most popular Chechen, then certainly the most famous. He was an interesting interview for journalists; a reasonable negotiator for the Russian military, and a predictable politician for Russian statesmen. He always maintained that terrorism was not one of his methods; however, he was proud of the operations he organized, especially the recapture of Grozny in August 1996. His second step into history was signing the Khasav-Yurt agreements with Aleksander Lebed, which led to the end of the first Russian-Chechen war.

Head of State

The three years that followed were dedicated to Chechnya’s attempts to exist as a de facto independent republic. The most important event in Maskhadov’s life and his third step into history was being elected President of Chechnya in January 1997. He won the first round with a huge advantage over his main rival and military ally, Shamil Basayev. The relationship and conduct of these two men, undoubtedly influenced by external factors, ultimately defined the fate of Chechnya.

Current Russian politicians are right in saying that by casting their votes for Maskhadov, Chechens voted against Basayev in order to choose peace. Maskhadov himself is also correct in saying he was elected democratically and by the entire nation. Although the election was fair, it was not, however, according to Russian laws. But Maskhadov always took a liberal approach to laws, even Chechen ones. He turned out to be a rather weak president, but it is doubtful that Chechnya, in the aftermath of war, could have sustained a stronger leader.

Nevertheless, everything started out quite favorably. In 1997 Maskhadov was in the Kremlin, and together with Boris Yeltsin signed a Peace Agreement. Although there were a number of economic assistance programs being worked out in Moscow to aid Chechnya, no one was very anxious to spend money on a republic where funds and people had a tendency to disappear. So an impasse was established whereby Moscow would support, but not actually help, Maskhadov. During these three years of independence no kidnappers were ever convicted in Chechnya. For instance, a famous kidnapper, Arbi Barayev, was released simply by swearing a pledge on the Koran to forego kidnapping. Yet photos of public capital punishment of some non-political murderers spread throughout the world.

Initially, Maskhadov appointed Basayev Deputy Premier of the Ichkerian government, but later on he became Acting Premier. In July 1998 Maskhadov singlehandedly led the government.

It should be noted that all documents designated for Moscow were signed by Maskhadov under the name of Aslan, and all domestic ones signed as Khalid. In the backdrop of an uncontrollable growth of criminal activity, the opposition, led by Basayev, stood openly against Maskhadov. Yet Maskhadov preferred "peace marches" rather than overtly suppressing the so-called “vahhabists”.

During his presidency, Maskhadov was unable to solve a problem that he himself created – returning all soldiers to peacetime duties. His primary concern focused on preventing internal Chechen conflicts. But this also turned out to be unsuccessful, as Chechens killed and were killed by other Chechens.

The result was inevitable. In December 1998 Basayev’s group asked Maskhadov to retire, and the "Sharia Court" told him to unilaterally cease contacts with Russia. In February 1999, Maskhadov established a "Sharia government," suspended operations of the Parliament, and abolished the post of Vice-President.

The fact that he was assaulted twice shows how badly things had gotten out of hand. At one point, while talking on the phone with the then Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov, Maskhadov abruptly hung up. But before doing so, a suggestion to establish order in Chechnya was offered to Maskhadov who, in turn, told Primakov he should be the one to re-establish order in Moscow.

Maskhadov Means War

His fourth step into history was quite brief. In August 1999 Basayev attacked Dagestan, but no words of censure came forth from Maskhadov; although he later insisted that he did condemn the action but no one heard it.

In October Russian forces entered Chechnya, but Maskhadov did not side with Moscow - that was done by Kadyrov. And today it is uncertain whether this could have prevented the wide-scale war. It is obvious that the terms Moscow offered were humiliating and unacceptable to Maskhadov; yet the Kremlin could offer no better ones. However, Maskhadov remained true to his principle that war with Russia is better than a scenario a la Afghanistan. As a result, Chechnya was involved not only in a war with Russia, but in a civil war as well.

Maskhadov’s fifth step into history turned out much longer than his previous ones. The second war in Chechnya is now in its fourth year, and during this entire time Maskhadov has become a distant president, working underground and inaccessible to everyone. He still disavows terrorist methods, but undertakes large-scale military operations and appeals to Moscow to negotiate “without prior conditions.”

Meanwhile, total absence of control over Chechen guerrillas is not the result of Russian propaganda. All meetings in the Chechnya mountains are held by Basayev, Gelayev and some Arabs, minus Maskhadov; and all of the former are more than happy to pose for photo shoots. And Maskhadov’s circle comments that these gatherings are just meetings of “one of the [resistance] fronts."

Maskhadov undoubtedly has armed and operational formations, otherwise he would not be so well guarded and in relative safety at all times. However, because he is no longer able to give orders to Chechen field commanders anymore, he only keeps signing decrees that no one obeys.

One of his remarkable decrees was signed in July 2002, which could have been described as “a cardinal reform of state government” - provided Ichkeria was not involved. He appointed Basayev his deputy, appointed commanders of "fronts" and other key structures and returned Movladi Udugov and Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev to “power." Yet all three men are Maskhadov’s critics. Evidently it is clear that he was forced to surround himself with an undesirable entourage.

By this time terrorism had become rampant. The terrorist act in Nord-Ost happened behind Maskhadov’s back; and Basayev was “punished“ (although according to his wishes) by being made to step down from "all his posts." After Nord-Ost, Russian President Vladimir Putin uttered one of his popular phrases: "Those who choose Maskhadov, choose war."

Whether or not negotiations with Maskhadov would help regulate the Chechen crisis seems to be outdated now, as it’s clear that negotiations alone cannot solve the crisis. Meanwhile, he and his circle are working out plans for a political solution that envisions, for example, “international autonomy” for Chechnya. However, Moscow is reluctant to take this seriously and refuses to budge from its own plan, in which the upcoming Chechen presidential election will play a crucial role.

Man of Principle

At the outset, Maskhadov’s part in the Moscow-organized Chechen presidental election seemed unreal, although very interesting. Sadly, none of the remaining candidates could rely on votes from Maskhadov's supporters. It was probably Ruslan Khasbulatov who would have had a chance at getting these votes - but he eventually bowed out of the race. These are the results of various “political strategies“ constantly used in Chechnya by Moscow.

It should also be noted that even famous people who never liked Russia's behaviour in Chechnya now appeal to Maskhadov to take some part in the political process rather than just sitting in the mountains writing decrees and working out wide-scale operations.

While predicting the course of the situation after the Chechen presidential elections, some still believe that the events that took place between 1995 and 1996, when Zavgayev and his Parliament were "elected," will again be repeated. Others speak about inevitable stabilization. As usual, the truth lies somewhere in between. Nor is it relevant to draw an analogy with 1996 because Kadyrov is not Zavgayev, Putin is not Yeltsin, and Maskhadov is not the same man he was then. And present events in Chechnya are far more serious and stability still a long way off.

Maskhadov had another principle – not to take military operations beyond Chechnya, stating that the whole world should see that Chechens were fighting for the independence of their state. Quite recently, however, his envoy Akhmad Zakayev mentioned that Maskhadov is considering military operations beyond Chechnya, namely into the entire territory of Russia. Thus it appears that Maskhadov is already morally prepared to take his sixth and final step into history.


Ilya Maskakov is an analyst for the Russian daily Izvestia and a frequent contributor to Prague Watchdog.

(V/E,T)

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