By encouraging reports that Aslan Maskhadov, Chechnya’s underground separatist president, is about to surrender, the administration of Akhmad Kadyrov has seriously raised the stakes in its campaign to prove that peace is at hand. If Maskhadov is still at large a month from now, with some separatist guerrillas still fighting in his name even if many others are effectively outside his control, Kadyrov’s credibility–and that of his allies in the Kremlin–will drop yet another notch. On the other hand, if Maskhadov should actually be captured (more likely than a voluntary surrender), Kadyrov and Russian President Vladimir Putin will have won their biggest victory, both symbolic and substantive, since the beginning of the second Chechen war in 1999.
Kadyrov has evidently been brandishing both a carrot and a stick to induce Maskhadov’s surrender. According to an April 8 Moskovsky komsomolets report, he is prepared to petition Putin to pardon Maskhadov. Kadyrov was quoted as follows: “I said to Maskhadov that the only chance for him to survive is to come forward voluntarily, bow low to the ground and from his heart beg the Chechen people for forgiveness.”
That phrasing implies that Kadyrov has already been negotiating directly with Maskhadov, perhaps by telephone, as has been suggested by several other media reports. Not surprisingly, Kadyrov now denies such reports, but according to Moskovsky komsomolets he had earlier admitted them.
An article in the April 8 issue of Nezavisimaya gazeta went even further, reporting that Kadyrov has stated his willingness “to serve as guarantor of Maskhadov’s safety” should the latter turn himself in. The same article noted that Ramzan Kadyrov, Akhmad Kadyrov’s son and the head of his personal army, had previously predicted that Maskhadov will surrender before the end of April. In an interview published on April 8 by the pro-Kremlin website Strana.ru, Ramzan said that Maskhadov now has only one person accompanying him, his nephew.
Spokesmen for the Russian armed forces said that Russian commandos were hunting for Maskhadov in the Vedeno and Nozhai-Yurt districts in Chechnya’s southern highlands, according to a April 8 article in Moskovsky komsomolets. These spokesman posed the alternatives starkly: The newspaper quoted them as insisting that the separatist leader now has only two choices, either to flee from Chechnya altogether or to surrender. In the latter case, they said, “he will bear criminal responsibility for having organized an armed uprising and for violating various other articles of the Russian criminal code.”
Unlike Kadyrov, the Russian armed forces offered no hints about a possible pardon. In fact, Nezavisimaya gazeta quoted Minister of Defense Sergei Ivanov as saying specifically that Maskhadov would never be granted amnesty. He was also said to have insisted that Maskhadov’s “influence within Chechnya has fallen to zero.” Vladimir Yakovlev, Putin’s special representative to the southern federal okrug, was equally categorical. According to an April 8 Vremya.ru report, he expressed confidence that Maskhadov would surrender “without any negotiations…there can be no negotiations with bandits who are up to their elbows in blood.”
In any case, observers outside the Putin and Kadyrov administrations remained highly skeptical of claims that the head of Chechnya’s underground separatist government would ever give himself up voluntarily. “It is most doubtful that Aslan Maskhadov would surrender,” wrote Andrei Riskin and Nadezhda Popova in their April 8 Nezavisimaya gazeta article. They quoted Vasily Zavadsky, a retired Russian army officer who served with Maskhadov in the 1980s as part of the Soviet occupation force in Lithuania: “He will fight to the end.” Political scientist Dmitry Oreshkin of the Merkator research center agreed that Maskhadov would be “more likely to put a bullet through his own head or flee across the border” than to turn himself in.
In a related development, meanwhile, the Utro.ru website reports that the gulf between Maskhadov and the terrorist warlord Shamil Basaev has widened to the point where their armed supporters actually engaged in a gunfight with each other near the village of Sherdi-Mokhk in the Vedeno district. Though reports from the pro-Kremlin Utro.ru should be treated with caution, the mutual disdain of the two separatist leaders has been confirmed by other sources as well; the account of armed combat between their followers is not inherently implausible.