Chechnya and the Northern Caucasus without Shamil Basaev

Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 7 Issue: 29

For the president of the Russian Federation, the past month has been full of good news from Chechnya. It was only on June 17 that information about the death of Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev, leader of the Chechen separatists, had come to light and now, just a few weeks later and coinciding with the start of the G8 summit, even better news has surfaced. Shamil Basaev, the most intransigent opponent of the Russian government in Chechnya and one of the most influential leaders not only of the Chechen movement but also of the entire resistance in the North Caucasus, has been eliminated.

Several weeks ago, Basaev was appointed to the post of vice-president of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria by Dokku Umarov, Sadulaev’s successor to the post of president of the republic (, June 27). Only two weeks later, during the night of July 9 or early on the morning of July 10, an explosion near the Ingush village of Ekazhevo ripped apart a car purportedly transporting weapons. The explosion killed several men, including three residents of Ingushetia long known to be supporters of the leader of the Ingush jamaat, known by the nom de guerre “Magas.” Initial reports by the Ingush branch of the Federal Security Service (FSB) noted that four insurgents en route to one of the regions of Ingushetia, in an attempt to commit a significant terrorist act, were killed when their explosives-laden truck detonated (, July 10). It was only sixteen hours later and apparently because of a prosthetic leg found at the site that the decision was made to publicly announce that the incident was not an accidental explosion but a planned operation by the FSB, which President Putin was personally informed of by FSB head Nikolai Patrushev.

According to Ingush sources, the first detachments of the Interior Ministry arrived at the scene several hours after the explosion (these sources claimed the explosion itself occurred at 2 AM, while the FSB said the explosion took place at midnight), with FSB representatives arriving somewhat later (, July 10). This makes little sense if Patrushev’s version of events is to be believed, since this was a particularly important mission. In addition, there were no signs of a missile impact, as was the case in the killing of Dzhokhar Dudaev, and Ingush policemen were unable to see any indications of a remote-controlled bomb (something that Ingush investigators deal with on a daily basis). Finally, if this truly was an FSB operation, it is unclear why the area was not cordoned off to prevent Basaev’s men from removing the evidence of the death of their leader, since none of the insurgents would want to offer up such a gift to the Russian government in time for the G8 summit. Overall, it seems more plausible that the whole incident was actually an accidental explosion, and that the version presented by Patrushev is nothing more than PR efforts by the special services in advance of the summit in St. Petersburg.

The announcement made by Russian Defense Minister Ivanov Sergei Ivanov at a press-conference in Rostov-on-Don was also strange, since the minister said that he saw no reason to analyze Basaev’s remains in order to positively identify them (, July 12). The military leadership either does not completely believe that Basaev is dead or it felt particularly annoyed by the fact that the FSB and not the military, with its long and fruitless efforts, had moved to the center stage by eliminating Putin’s main antagonist in Chechnya.

Nevertheless, Shamil Basaev’s death, which has been confirmed by both the separatists (, July 10) and by the separatist Chechenpress and Daymokh websites, must be seen as the first real psychological victory for the Russian government since the start of hostilities in Chechnya. Though the deaths of many other military commanders were significant, none of them can be truly compared with that of Basaev. Even the killing of President Aslan Maskhadov was only the defeat of the legitimacy that he had earned by having won honest elections conducted with the direct involvement of numerous NGOs and recognized by European organizations such as the OSCE and the Council of Europe. Maskhadov’s death deprived the Chechen movement of a certain legitimate foundation, but it did not cripple it militarily or politically.

The appearance of Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev and the resulting organization of the whole Caucasus front was a concrete demonstration of the Chechen resistance movement’s strength. The resistance leaders broadened the basis of the conflict, making it completely incorrect today to refer to it as “Chechen” since the actions of jamaat cells in Dagestan, Ingushetia, Stavropol and Kabardno-Balkaria as well as the strongholds held in Karachaevo-Cherkessia and Adygeia make it encompass the entire Caucasus region (see Shamil Basaev’s interview with, January 9). Sadulaev’s death, while completely unexpected, did not really alter the overall situation for the many reasons mentioned in our earlier article (Chechnya Weekly, July 22). One key reason, however, for the relative stability of the overall situation, despite the changing leaders, was the personality of Shamil Basaev himself.

At all times, whether remaining in the shadows or appointed to a cabinet post, Basaev worked as the main link between the changing Chechen leadership and the various ethnic jamaat cells in the region, be they Dagestani, Ingush, Nogai, Kabardino-Balkar, Karachai or Adygei. This meant that after the deaths of Maskhadov and Sadulaev, it was Basaev who first took the oath of fealty to each new Chechen leader and successfully called for all of the jamaat cells to follow his example (, July 3 and April 15).

It was Shamil Basaev who orchestrated the broadening of the conflict to the whole of the North Caucasus by involving the ethnic-based jamaat cells that originally functioned only in Chechnya proper. By setting them up as separate ethnic units and spreading them across the entire region, Basaev hoped to pull some of the governmental attention away from Chechnya and disperse Russian forces across the entire North Caucasus. It took three years to implement this plan, but the results are obvious, with battles fading in Chechnya itself and flaring up in the neighboring republics. The media was forced to cover numerous military operations conducted in Dagestan, Ingushetia and Kabardino-Balkaria.

Basaev’s death will surely impact the cohesiveness of this mechanism, since there is simply no one left to fill his shoes. Even the new Chechen leader Dokku Umarov, one of the old guard that came into being in the days of Dzhokhar Dudaev, does not have the same capabilities as Basaev. Shamil Basaev’s authority among the jamaat cells was unquestioned, far exceeding his influence in Chechnya itself, where he always had certain opponents. In contrast, Dokku Umarov has neither the influence nor the experience in working with cells from the other republics. He is much more of a local Chechen politician, and it is very hard to see him as a leader of the entire region. Lacking Basaev’s vast experience, Umarov also cannot match Basaev’s charisma.

The disappearance of Basaev from the political scene weakens the military wing of the resistance movement, while at the same time expanding the possibilities for the political wing, since it is now feasible for them to make statements that Basaev would have never tolerated while alive (see, for example, Akhmed Zakaev’s interview with Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, published on July 11).

Is it possible to say that this is the twilight of the Chechen resistance movement? In all probability, the answer is “no.” The death of Shamil Basaev is a heavy blow, but it is not a fatal one. The movement will once again reorganize itself and establish a new leadership hierarchy. New Chechen leaders are necessary for all of the North Caucasus, since they provide the link that ties the various resistance movements together and makes them feel part of one whole. Because of this role, the Chechen leadership will be synonymous with the leadership of the whole North Caucasus for a long time to come. It is also probable that the plans conceived by Basaev before his death will be brought to fruition by Umarov, if for no other reason than to bolster his new position as leader with fresh successes. Thus, it seems logical to expect significant anti-Russian activity in the North Caucasus in the near future. In this way, though Shamil Basaev has now become a figure of history, the results of his life’s actions will long impact the region that has become a source of constant problems for Russia.