Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 36

The North Caucasus division of the Prosecutor General’s Office has brought criminal charges against Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov. Maskhadov is charged, under Article 279 of Russia’s criminal code, with organizing and participating in an armed rebellion, for which he could be sentenced to twenty years in prison. The case against Maskhadov was announced by Yuri Byurikov, head of the North Caucasus division of the Prosecutor General’s Office (Russian agencies, February 18).

The fact that a criminal case has been brought against Maskhadov is not surprising. The only question is why it happened now, six years after the start of the first Chechen war and some six months after the start of the second. The most likely explanation is that the Kremlin is hoping to use the case against Maskhadov as part of Acting President Vladimir Putin’s presidential campaign.

Just prior to the announcement of the criminal case against him, Maskhadov was the object of a massive propaganda attack by the Russian government. On February 16, Deputy Justice Minister Yuri Kalinin claimed that Maskhadov had ordered Chechen fighters to organize terrorist attacks in Djohar, the Chechen capital, and the town of Gudermes, both of which are now controlled by federal forces. The same day, Federal Security Service spokesman Aleksandr Zdanovich claimed that Maskhadov had offered representatives of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly (PACE) to free three foreign hostages in return for the assembly’s political support for the Chechen cause. After Zdanovich’s demarche but before the announcement by the Prosecutor General’s Office, Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev said that Maskhadov should be put on the list of wanted international criminals.

The Prosecutor General’s Office has, indeed, called for Maskhadov to be put on the international wanted list, while Sergei Yastrzhembsky, Putin’s point man on Chechnya, claimed that Russia’s special services had intercepted radio broadcasts on which Maskhadov ordered Chechen fighters to “cut and trample” captured Russians. It is impossible to say whether such an order was really given or whether it was Russian disinformation. In any case, the information campaign against Maskhadov would appear to be working. In a recent poll, the All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) found that 57 percent of those surveyed do not believe that Maskhadov is the legally elected president of Chechnya (Segodnya, February 18; see also the Monitor, February 18).