Observers in Russia and elsewhere continue to mull the significance of the March 8 killing of Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov. Meanwhile, Maskhadov’s London-based emissary, Akhmed Zakaev, said in a statement that the rebel leadership had agreed back in July-August 2002 that should the separatist government’s president, Maskhadov, become unable to carry out his duties, they would be assumed by the chairman of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria’s Sharia court, Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev, until elections could be held. “Our responsibility, the responsibility of all Chechen citizens, is to unite around our new leader, to become his reliable advisers and allies in the fight to liberate our motherland from Russian occupation,” Zakaev declared (Chechenpress, March 10). Zakaev’s call to rally around Sadulaev was echoed by rebel warlord Shamil Basaev in a statement posted on both the Chechenpress and Kavkazcenter websites.
Most Russian observers seem to agree that the new rebel president, while a little known figure, belongs to the separatist movement’s radical Islamist wing. Indeed, the grani.ru website quoted from a statement by Sadulaev that Kavkazcenter posted on August 2, 2004. “Our enemies receive from the Kremlin the assignment to kill our relatives,” read a section of the statement apparently referring to pro-Moscow Chechens. “We, however, do not follow their example, but [follow] the precepts of Allah. We will dispose of those hypocrites, and, if Allah wills it, their brothers and sisters will be our helpers in the common cause, on the path to Allah.” Grani.ru also noted that Russian investigators believe that two militants prosecuted for the January 2001 kidnapping in Chechnya of Medecins Sans Frontieres aid worker Kenneth Gluck were members of a rebel unit commanded by Anzor Mukaev, who, they allege, was directly subordinated to Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev (grani.ru, March 10). Gluck was released after nearly a month in captivity.
In the words of Kommersant, “The ‘moderate’ separatist Maskhadov always regarded the radical and Wahhabi Abdul-Khalim with suspicion,” yet nonetheless publicly named him as his successor. The newspaper quoted one of Maskhadov’s successors as explaining: “Aslan understood perfectly that his political line, aimed at negotiations with Moscow, was at a dead end. He ended up in complete isolation as a result of his attempts to resolve the Chechen problem by diplomatic means. The federals and kadyrovtsy declared him a terrorist; the radical fighters headed by Basaev reproached him for flirting with Moscow, hoping in that way to gain mercy for himself and his family. As a result, having realized that in this situation it would be to the advantage of both to get rid of him, Maskhadov began to think about a successor” (Kommersant, March 11).
A number of observers believe the killing of Maskhadov was deliberately aimed at precluding the possibility that the Chechen conflict could be settled politically. “In Chechnya we are facing two different types of enemy,” Andrei Piontkovsky, director for the Center for Strategic Studies, told Moskovsky komsomolets. “The first is the classical one: the separatists that Maskhadov headed, who are fighting for this or that status for Chechnya. In recent years, incidentally, their official demand was not independence for the republic, but a high degree of autonomy. The second enemy, which has emerged in recent years, is the people gathered around Basaev. They are Islamic fundamentalists who see themselves as part of a world Islamic jihad. They fight for a worldwide caliphate, for the destruction of the West and Russia. For this reason — I have always believed this — it is to Russia’s strategic advantage to split these enemies, isolating the extremist part (the Basaev-ites) and negotiating with the separatists (the Maskhadov-ites). The elimination of Maskhadov means the end of any hope for this possibility. In my view, Moscow deliberately deprived itself of the possibility of this potentially productive political maneuver. The remnants of Maskhadov’s detachment will come under the influence of the radicals and Basaev. They will conduct a fight to the death. And so Maskhadov’s death will lead to a worsening of the situation. The entire North Caucasus is a classic growth medium for Islamic revolution” (Moskovsky komsomolets, March 10).
Shamil Beno, who served as Chechen President Dzhokhar Dudaev’s foreign minister in 1991-92 and then as the Moscow representative of the pro-Moscow Chechen leader Akhmad Kadyrov in 2000-2001, put forward a similar view. “Maskhadov was the last representative of, if you will, democratic, secular separatism,” Beno told the utro.ru website. “With his departure such representatives no longer remain in the ranks of the militants; only Islamists remain. Like them or not, respect them or not — but that, in any case, is the reality. To defeat them by force is impossible, because these people are prepared to die. The problem can be solved only on the basis of finding a formula…that will provide the possibility for human self-realization in the North Caucasus. But as for the federal center — it is for the time being not prepared to negotiate with anyone. That would contradict the logic of the policy that is being carried out by the authorities in Chechnya. If a carrot-and-stick policy is not carried out, the results will be lamentable, but a carrot-and-stick policy, given our realities, is impossible in principle. We will have only the stick. The stick will eventually break, and this will lead to a protracted crisis similar to the one in the Middle East” (Utro.ru, March 11).
Anna Politkovskaya wrote in the latest edition of Novaya gazeta that regardless of who is named as the Chechen rebel movement’s formal leader, it is clear whom Maskhadov’s elimination ultimately benefits. “The role of leader of the Chechen resistance (regardless of whom the State Defense Committee of Ichkeria, operating underground, names) passes to the main opponent of Maskhadov’s moderate methods,” she wrote. “His name is Basaev. Thus it is possible to state that as result of the operation to liquidate Maskhadov, organized by the spetsnaz of FSB RF [Federal Security Service of the Russian Federation], the reins of government of the resistance forces are going to Basaev, who is not in the least concerned about legitimacy…And this means that as a result of Maskhadov’s death we got two figures in Chechnya equal in terms of bloodthirstiness and medievalism — Basaev and Kadyrov, Jr. [Chechen First Deputy Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov-EDM]. Everyone else (all the people of our country) will be between these two fires” (Novaya gazeta, March 10).