March 20th 2005 · Prague Watchdog / Sanobar Shermatova · PRINTER FRIENDLY FORMAT · E-MAIL THIS · ALSO AVAILABLE IN: RUSSIAN 

Maskhadov’s Last Earthly Comments about the Upcoming "Round Table"

Five days before his death, the Chechen leader predicted who would represent the separatists in Strasbourg and also why it was essential that Vladimir Putin meet with him personally.

Sanobar Shermatova, special to Prague Watchdog

“Chechen citizens who have been prepared by the Russian federals, traitors and turncoats will take part in this Round Table meeting as will several cowardly members of our parliament. Vakha Arsanov was recently detained and is being held by federal special forces and being prepared to be an active participant in this meeting.“

The Chechen separatist president Aslan Maskhadov said these words exactly five days before his death, during an interview with the underground Chechen radio station Marsho (Freedom). And on March 8, several hours before his death, the entire interview appeared on the Daymohk website. The site also hosts an audio of the interview in the Chechen language that probably led to its being overlooked.

Maskhadov and Arsanov Part Company

It is obvious to Chechens, and anyone else following the situation in the republic, to whom Maskhadov was referring. Vakha Arsanov, a former captain at the State Motor Inspectorate, was Maskhadov’s running mate in the 1997 presidential elections and became his vice-president. The elections took place under the auspices of the OSCE and its outcome was accepted by Russia and other countries. Almost 300,000 Chechen voters chose Maskhadov and Arsanov, hoping these two moderate leaders, unlike the more radical Basayev and other commanders (who also took part in the elections), would more quickly conclude negotiations with Russia for a peaceful future.

These hopes, however, were left unfulfilled. Immediately after the elections, field commanders began to attack Maskhadov and several attempts were made on his life. The warlords held meetings where they accused him of being ineffective and called on him to resign. Meanwhile, the defeated candidates created their own power structures, duplicating those of the president’s official committees, and thus attempted to usurp his power. Throughout this long power struggle, Arsanov sat on the fence, neither standing together with the president nor openly moving against him.

After the start of the second war in 1999, Maskhadov led the military opposition, while Arsanov disappeared from sight. It was said Arsanov went to neighbouring Ingushetia and was living in a cottage in Nazran. He surfaced in 2001 and in an interview with one of the European news agencies he described the continuing opposition to Russian federal forces as “pointless.”

Observers interpreted this as an attempt by him to attract Moscow’s attention to make him a potential negotiating partner as, at that time, there was talk in Moscow about the necessity of finding a political solution to the conflict. The list of politicians included Yevgeni Primakov, former Russian Premier; Ruslan Aushev, president of Ingushetia; and Alexander Dzasokhov, president of North Ossetia, all of whom were trying to get the negotiating process off the ground.

However, Arsanov did not succeed in being selected to join this group. In the autumn of 2001, Moscow agreed to have General Viktor Kazantsev meet with Maskhadov’s emissary, Akhmed Zakayev. However, the talks ended in failure, for which Kazantsev was held responsible.

From President to President

Arsanov’s attempt to enter the political arena did not go unnoticed by Maskhadov: the Ichkerian vice-president was removed from office at a meeting of the State Defense Committee. In his last interview Maskhadov explained the reasons for Arsanov's being relieved of his duties. “He could have fallen into the hands of the Federals at any time and they could’ve forced him to take part in the negotiations. We foresaw this possibility.”

Maskhadov’s distrust of his vice-president is easy to explain. From the start of the second war, Arsanov was against opposing the federal forces and thus took no part in it. He gravitated towards the Mufti Akhmed Kadyrov who, although Maskhadov’s colleague throughout the first war, broke with him in 1999, declaring that waging war against Russia was senseless. Kadyrov later became the Moscow-backed Chechen president, and Arsanov, according to some sources, left Ingushetia for Chechnya and took up residence in Kadyrov’s native village of Tsentoroi, protected from both Maskhadov’s guerrillas and Russian special services.

Whether or not Arsanov has indeed been arrested is unknown and perhaps only he is able to provide the answer. Whatever the truth is, Maskhadov may have feared that Arsanov would replace him at the negotiating table since Moscow did once set such a precedent. In 1996, Boris Yeltsin categorically refused to sit at the negotiating table with the then Chechen president, Jokhar Dudayev. The Chechen leader was only killed when it became clear that the chief of staff of the Chechen forces, Aslan Maskhadov, would replace him.

History has a way of repeating itself, which is why Maskhadov probably put forward the alternative of a personal meeting with Putin instead of at the Round Table in Strasbourg.

Great Powers Pursue Their Own Goals

In his interview Maskhadov explained why he believed that Moscow required a resolution of the Chechen problem. It was unfavourable for Russia to continue the war for several reasons, including political ones. Great powers, Maskhadov said, are in a position to either end a war or continue it. “One way or another, this contradicts the interests of Russia; as a result these great powers will come to the Caucasus. They won’t do this for the Chechens, but for their own interests.”

This is quite an unexpected statement. Maskhadov officially supported a plan that foresaw the withdrawal of Russian forces from Chechnya, to be replaced by an international UN peacekeeping force. But this plan somehow awakened the Kremlin’s suspicions that certain forces in the USA would “grab” the Russian Caucasus. After the plan’s publication, Ilyas Akhmadov, the separatist foreign minister who drafted it and was politically close to the American Committee for Peace in Chechnya, was labeled a CIA spy.

Maskhadov’s interview explains why he was convinced he needed to talk with Putin, and why only half an hour would be enough to end the opposition in Chechnya. But, unfortunately, events took a far different turn.

Sanobar Shermatova is a reporter for the weekly Moscow News (Moskovskiye Novosti). She occasionally contributes to Prague Watchdog.


 · Aslan Maskhadov's interview (in Chechen; Daimohk, 8.3. 2005)



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