Obituary: Aslan Makhadov
Thwarted plans and failed dreams of a Chechen leader.
By Thomas de Waal in London (CRS No. 277, 09-Mar-05)
Aslan Maskhadov, who was killed on March 8 in Chechnya, was a tragic figure
whose dreams of leading his republic crumbled in part due to his own
failures as a politician and in part because of the appalling problems that
overwhelmed Chechnya over the last decade.
Maskhadov was neither a great Chechen nationalist leader nor a "terrorist"
as the Russians claimed, but a modest man who, if history had been
different, might have ended up as a Russian army general.
He was a man of contradictions. Educated in the Soviet army, he was in many
ways as Russian as he was Chechen. Although a professional warrior, he
tried to be a politician. Marginalised by the second war in Chechnya that
began in 1999, he tried to appeal both to western and Islamic audiences to
support what he saw as his resistance struggle.
Like most Chechens of his generation, Maskhadov was born in exile in 1951
in Kazakstan, where his people had been deported en masse by Stalin. Unlike
most of his compatriots, he was able, after the Chechens had been allowed
to return home in the late Fifties, to make a career within the Soviet system.
Maskhadov became an artillery officer and served all over Russia and
Eastern Europe. He served in Vilnius in January 1991, when Lithuanian
civilians were killed by the Soviet army - an episode which he later said
filled him with shame.
In many ways, his values were those of a 19th century Tsarist officer,
combined with romanticised Caucasian concepts of chivalry. Not for nothing
was his autobiography entitled "Honour is Dearer Than Life."
Observing the Russian army from within, Maskhadov came to see its growing
weakness and corruption, and sought to instil discipline and respect both
in his Soviet-era subordinates and then in the fledgling army he tried to
create in Chechnya, after it declared unilateral independence from Russia
When Russian federal troops invaded Chechnya in December 1994 to crush the
regime of rebel president Jokhar Dudayev, Maskhadov took it upon himself to
turn a diverse group of partisan fighters into something like a regular
army. His success in doing that helped the Chechen fighters inflict a
humiliating defeat on the Russian army in 1996.
Yet Maskhadov also had a traditional distaste for war, typical of many
military men. In an interview in the village of Goity in February 1994, as
fighting raged around him, he could barely disguise his irritation with
Dudayev and his fiery polemics, and talked instead of the need for a truce.
By contrast, Maskhadov found it easy to find a common language with the
more reasonable among his Russian counterparts. It was his ability to talk
to them that thrust him more and more into the limelight, as he was able to
negotiate ceasefires and start peace talks in 1995. With one general,
Anatoly Romanov, he developed such a close relationship that the two were
almost friends. Romanov was then blown up in unexplained circumstances and
In 1996 the tactic of combined military and political pressure paid
dividends and when Dudayev was assassinated in April of that year,
Maskhadov began to emerge as his natural successor. Talking in a beech wood
in southern Chechnya after Dudayev's death, the generally soft-spoken
Maskhadov was suddenly brimming with confidence - he had just received news
that he had been invited to talks with President Boris Yeltsin and would
soon exchange the forest for the halls of the Kremlin.
The years 1996-97 were the high point for Maskhadov. In January 1997, he
was elected president in a vote that was monitored by international
observers and recognised by both Russia and the international community. In
an emphatic pledge of support, more than 300,000 Chechens voted for him.
Then in May of that year, he met Yeltsin again in the Kremlin and signed a
landmark treaty with Moscow, which was deliberately ambiguous about the
status of Chechnya but promised cooperation and an end to violence.
But everything had already begun to unravel. The radical commanders who had
defeated the Russians were now dividing up the spoils of Chechnya.
Criminality and kidnapping were rampant. Radical Islamists began to win new
recruits. Leading al-Qaeda figure Ayman al-Zawahiri tried to travel to
One of Maskhadov's main strengths - his flexibility and pragmatism - proved
to be one of his weaknesses.
He tried to accommodate all interests in Chechnya, including those of the
radical Islamists, while failing to reach out to the popular constituency
that had brought him to power. Chechnya descended into anarchy. Having
initially committed himself to a secular Chechnya, he half-heartedly
declared the rule of shariah, Islamic law.
On a series of foreign trips, including to London and Washington, Maskhadov
met with sympathy but could not articulate a clear message or give good
arguments as to how Chechnya could be given support.
As Vladimir Putin rose to power and Russian troops re-invaded Chechnya in
1999, Maskhadov pleaded in vain for negotiations. It was a plea he repeated
only last month after Moscow ignored a ceasefire he had announced.
Maskhadov and his envoys abroad condemned the theatre siege in Moscow in 2002 and last year's seizure of the school in Beslan, but these acts
tainted him in the eyes of many, proving at the very least that he was
unable to rein in the more radical actions of his long-term rival Shamil
Basayev. His failure completely to disassociate himself from Basayev made
it easy for the Russian government to accuse him of complicity in such
Mairbek Vachagayev, who worked as Maskhadov's spokesman for several years
and is now in exile in Paris, said by telephone that he feared Maskhadov's
death would radicalise the Chechen rebel movement.
"Although he was a mild, cultured man he was able to restrain people,
Maskhadov persuaded them not to go out and commit acts of terror," said
Vachagayev. "Now instead of one Shamil [Basayev] we will have ten - and
instead of one Beslan we will have ten.
"Maskhadov's mistake was that he was sincere; his weakness that he was too
honest. He sincerely believed that if he only he could meet Putin, the
problem of Chechnya could be resolved."
No one disputes that Maskhadov was a unique figure and there is no one who
can replace him as political leader of the Chechen resistance movement.
Both Chechens and Russians have lost a figure of substance who was a known
quantity. His passing pushes the Chechen conflict deeper into the shadows.
Thomas de Waal is IWPR's Caucasus Editor in London.
This article originally appeared in the Caucasus Reporting Service, produced by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, www.iwpr.net.