Publication: Prism Volume: 2 Issue: 9

Dudaev’s Death Spells More Violence in Chechnya

By Maria Eismont

President of the separatist Chechen Republic of Ichkeria Djohar Dudaev was killed on the night of April 21st as a result of a federal air strike. An official announcement to that effect was made by the head of Ichkeria’s government delegation at the negotiations with Moscow, Khozh-Ahmet Yarikhanov, and circulated via Itar-Tass channels. The location where the Chechen field commanders buried their leader is a secret. Many in the Russian top leadership doubt that Djohar Dudaev is dead as long as they have no opportunity to exhume and identify his dead body. One thing is clear: Djohar Dudaev has vanished from the Chechen political scene forever and will be remembered by the Chechens as a hero and a martyr.

Djohar Dudaev as a Symbol of Independent Chechnya

General Dudaev was not the first Chechen president. He was a symbol of the country’s struggle for independence and its opposition to Russia. For the Chechens who considered themselves citizens of the Republic of Ichkeria, Dudaev embodied the legitimacy of this unrecognized and, since 1995 semi-underground, state. With the beginning of the war the majority of the Chechens forgave all the "wrongdoings" of this man who (before the war started) had been one of the most unpopular leaders in the post-Soviet space. Two weeks before Dudaev’s reported death, the notorious field commander Shamil Basayev said: "I did not like Dudaev’s internal policy, but now he is my president and I fulfill his orders." Many Chechen militants explained their loyalty (often merely declarative) to the leader as follows: "If we had not been subordinate to someone and if each had been free to wage war as he liked, we would have been precisely bandits, as Yeltsin calls us. Since we have a president, a chief of the staff and unit commanders appointed by the president, we are the Chechen Army."

Perhaps Djohar Dudaev was the last "binding force" that held all the Chechen field commanders together, the latter being divided by the Russian troops and mutual hatred. At least once in every two months the president of Ichkeria organized meetings which were usually attended by all commanders of large formations. It is difficult to judge to what extent these meetings were productive: neither subjects discussed at these meetings nor decisions made were ever disclosed. However, one obvious positive result (for the militants) was that these meetings created the appearance of President Dudaev being in control of everything in the republic.

Djohar Dudaev was perhaps the only one of the Chechen separatist leaders with whom it was difficult to meet. Since the beginning of the war he had only a few times appeared in public. The Russian authorities viewed Dudaev as the main culprit in the lengthy resistance of the militants. In addition, he symbolized Russia’s helplessness in resolving the Chechen problem.

Versions of Dudaev’s Death

In all likelihood Djohar Dudaev is really dead and most probably his death resulted from either an accidental or a precision strike by Russian aviation.

Khozh-Ahmet Yarikhanov announced the first (and, for several hours, the only) version of the death of his leader. According to Yarikhanov, Dudaev was killed on the night of April 21st near the settlement of Gekhi-Chu "during a seance of satellite communication with a likely mediator" for his future peace talks with Boris Yeltsin. According to Yarikhanov’s version, Dudaev arrived in Gekhi-Chu (Urus-Martan district) together with his wife Alevtina and his Moscow representative Khamad Kurbanov and stopped in the house of military prosecutor Magomet Djaniyev. At a certain moment the Chechen president was joined by a high-ranking representative of Moscow (his name is not revealed). Late in the afternoon all the above mentioned persons (except for Alevtina) moved to the settlement’s outskirts to make preparations for a satellite communication seance with a recipient whose name is not reported. During the communication seance "federal air force helicopters suddenly appeared and launched a number of missiles" at the cars near which Dudaev and his companions were standing. All the mentioned people died either immediately or shortly after the attack. Mr. Yarikhanov said that a funeral of the Chechen separatist leader would be held in the settlement of Shalazhi on April 24th.

A different version of Dudaev’s death was given by Chechen field commander Akhmet Zakayev on April 24th. The first part of the story told by Zakayev is identical to that of Yarikhanov. However, Zakayev insists that Dudaev’s wife Alevtina went to the site where satellite communication was to be organized together with her husband, but "walked aside" abiding by the Chechen tradition which calls for women not to meddle in men’s affairs. This saved her life. Djohar Dudaev and other people who accompanied him were killed by "a precision bomb strike delivered by Russian aircraft," Zakayev said. Zakayev presumes that the self-aiming missiles zeroed in on the radio signal emitted by Dudaev’s transmitter and the transmitter was spotted by a Russian flying laboratory a few minutes before the strike. To prove his story Zakayev demonstrated (to an NTV correspondent) the scene of the incident and the tail fins of the two 250-kilogram high- explosive air-to-surface rockets. However, a "high-ranking Moscow representative" who allegedly died together with Dudaev is not mentioned at all in Zakayev’s story. As far as the satellite communication seance is concerned Zakayev presumes that Djohar Dudaev would have been calling the King of Morocco Khasan the Second. Several days before the incident the King of Morocco expressed his readiness to serve as a mediator for negotiations between Djohar Dudaev and Boris Yeltsin. Zakayev told journalists that Dudaev’s funeral "had already been held on April 23rd." The location where Dudaev is buried, Zakayev added, is known only to his relatives and a narrow circle of his closest cohorts.

On April 25th Dudaev’s successor Zelimkhan Yandarbiev appeared on the Chechen political scene. He held his first press conference as acting president of Ichkeria. After having declared that the fight for freedom continues, Mr. Yandarbiev reported some new information about the circumstances of Dudaev’s death. In his story he mentioned a "high-ranking representative of Russia" adding that he "will not disclose his name for the time being." Moreover, Mr. Yandarbiev reported the name of the person with whom Dudaev conversed via satellite on that fateful night. According to Yandarbiev, it was State Duma deputy Konstantin Borovoi. The latter is known for his sympathetic attitude towards the Chechen resistance.

With Dudaev’s death, the initiative in escalating military actions has shifted to the cohorts of the late Chechen president. It is obvious that from now on all actions by Chechen militants (even the most brutal ones) will be explained by them as "honorable vengeance for the killing of their president." For the time being, the uncertain situation that has formed following Dudaev’s death makes it impossible to predict the fate of the peace initiative. Before Dudaev’s death peace efforts did not go farther than secret consultations and a search for mediators. Perhaps, some of the field commanders, now free of Dudaev’s control, will eventually agree to enter separate talks. Possibly, this was the very goal pursued by those who organized the killing of the Chechen president. However, the present situation is that Dudaev’s place in the talks with Moscow has officially been taken by Shamil Basayev, a man who is perhaps even more radical than Dudaev and a person with whom Moscow will definitely refuse to talk due to his leading role in the terrorist act in Budennovsk in June 1995. As far as the Russian politicians are concerned they would prefer to negotiate with Chechen armed formations chief of staff Aslan Maskhadov. However, the latter, after the federal authorities advertised him as "agreeable," lacks the trust of the militants. Besides, Aslan Maskhadov considers it impossible to take part in the talks explaining that the unsuccessful negotiations of the summer and fall of 1995 had "discredited" him. In addition, Maskhadov like many other field commanders and even those craving peace — is averse to taking part in some behind-the-scenes arrangements.

If Dudaev’s death was not an accident, the results of this operation will hardly be those expected. The situation has been complicated to the utmost. Earlier the federal authorities had to deal with one, perhaps not very balanced man who controlled, even if not in full measure, the separatist movement and the militants. The death of their leader will certainly not make the Chechen separatists stronger. Perhaps, being left without its backbone (which Dudaev personified) the resistance will weaken and diminish to sporadic guerrilla acts. However, the field commanders will be held back from signing a peace with Russia (on the terms proposed by Moscow) by their more radical brothers-in-arms. Besides, from now on it is useless to expect any manifestations of humanism (even dictated by political consideration, as was sometimes the case with Dudaev) from the militants.

Maria Eismont covers the war in Chechnya for Segodnya.