The coincidence seems just a bit too perfect: Precisely during the last week before Russia’s March 14 presidential election, several key leaders of Aslan Maskhadov’s underground separatist government were reported to have surrendered to pro-Moscow forces in Chechnya. Not all of these surrenders were immediately confirmed by the separatists themselves or by independent sources, but of the most important, Maskhadov’s minister of defense Magomed Khambiev, there could be no doubt.
The separatists vigorously denied that Khambiev’s surrender was truly voluntary, insisting that he gave up only because as many as thirty relatives and others close to him had been kidnapped by pro-federal gunmen and threatened with murder. But even if the separatist version is essentially true, as seems likely, the loss of Khambiev constituted a serious defeat for the rebel guerrillas. The pro-Moscow Kadyrov administration immediately began putting Khambiev’s “voluntary surrender” to use as an example for other guerrillas to follow, and there were some signs that this tactic was working.
The immediate result of the dramatic surrenders was of course a last minute boost to Vladimir Putin’s reelection campaign; most likely the timing was no accident. The longer term effect, which will unfold only in the coming months with Putin now safely installed for another four-year term, will almost certainly be a significant tilt in the balance of power within the separatist camp. In effect, this will be a victory not only for Putin and Kadyrov, but also for Shamil Basaev and other extremists who have long since broken with Maskhadov–and whose weapon of choice is terrorism.
Not only the triumphant pro-Kremlin media, but also respected independent observers such as correspondents Timur Aliev and Ruslan Zhadaev, described last week’s events as a crushing blow to Maskhadov. In a March 11 analysis for the Caucasus Reporting Service of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (website www.iwpr.net), Aliev and Zhadaev concluded that “Maskhadov’s military power has been virtually broken by the loss of his two most powerful commanders.” (The other commander was Khamzat Gelaev, whose death in combat in Dagestan was confirmed two weeks ago.) “He must now rely on only two commanders for close backing, Vakha Arsanov and Isa Munaev,” wrote the two journalists. “By contrast, the radical Islamist side has four powerful figures in Shamil Basaev, Saudi-born Abu Walid, Dokku Umarov and Abdul-Malik Mezhidov.”
The IWPR analysis quoted Nadirsolt Elsunkaev, former head of Maskhadov’s security service, as estimating the remaining guerillas under Arsanov and Munaev as “not…a significant force.” Pro-Maskhadov forces have suffered by refusing to accept financial subsidies from Islamic extremists, said Elsunkaev. They have even seen some of their members defect to the Kadyrov administration.
From Maskhadov’s standpoint, Arsanov may be even worse than useless, according to a March 12 article for Prague Watchdog by Sanobar Shermatova. The veteran correspondent for Moskovskie novosti wrote that Arsanov “has numerous rumors swirling around him. From the beginning of the second Chechen campaign, Arsanov was never at war with the federal forces. Our source asserted that at various times this former co-worker of Maskhadov sat in Ingushetia and occasionally emerged, offering to negotiate with Moscow. People who are in the know say that there were certain arrangements made between Arsanov and Kadyrov, who promised to grant Arsanov safety. And Arsanov, in turn, could then represent himself as a member of the government of Ichkeria with all impending results. In other words, to replace Maskhadov in the event of his death.”
On March 11, Akhmad Kadyrov’s son, Ramzan, who is head of the Chechen dictator’s private army, claimed that Boris Aidamirov, another military commander said to be close to Maskhadov, had surrendered that day. Aidamirov had been influenced, said Kadyrov, by Khambiev’s previous surrender. Surrendering with Aidamirov were said to be another ten separatist guerrillas.
Seeking to maximize their new propaganda advantage, the pro-Moscow forces began to encourage predictions that Maskhadov himself would soon surrender. For example, the local boss of the Federal Security Service (FSB), Yury Rozhen, said that “Maskhadov is very pessimistic about his future and is now prepared either to hide in the near abroad [that is, somewhere outside Russia but within the former Soviet Union] or even to surrender to the Russian authorities.” If such daring predictions should prove to be groundless, that will not become clear to most Russians immediately; in the meantime the predictions have served their purpose in the Putin re-election campaign.
Another rumor was that Khambiev might even become an official in the Kadyrov administration. That rumor appeared on the Lenta.ru website on March 11. Khambiev seemed to give further credence to that rumor in an appearance last week on the Kadyrov administration’s state television channel. He was quoted by the pro-Kremlin website Strana.ru as having said that he was “prepared to carry out any assignment” that Kadyrov might give him. He was also quoted as having called upon the guerrillas who remain underground to “lay down their arms and begin a new life in peace.”
Magomed Khambiev’s brother, Umar, who is minister of health in the Maskhadov government, told a press conference in Strasbourg, France, on March 10 that “as a brother, I understand the reasons for Magomed’s actions, that he sacrificed himself to save the lives of our relatives who were taken hostage.” He added, however, that “as a member of the government of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, I categorically condemn this act because occupation forces, using this precedent, can from now on subject other members of the Chechen government to terrible blackmail.”
Magomed Khambiev himself insisted after his surrender that it had been voluntary. But of course that is exactly what one would expect of him if Umar’s version is true; it would be one of the Kadyrov administration’s conditions for the safe release of their relatives. Adding credibility to Umar’s story were the circumstances described by Mainat Abdulaeva in a March 11 article for Novaya gazeta. The article recounted how unidentified gunmen seized a 22-year-old member of the Khambiev family directly from a lecture at Grozny University’s medical school on March 1. On that very same day the student’s older brother, also a medical student, was seized from the family’s apartment in Grozny. Other relatives were captured in the extended family’s home village of Benoi in southeastern Chechnya.
Students at the medical school held protest demonstrations every day for the next week, wrote Abdulaeva, demanding the release of Aslanbek and Shita Khambiev. The demonstrators insisted that the brothers had been taken captive only because they were relatives of a separatist leader.
Extremist warlords such as Shamil Basaev will not necessarily fill the gap caused by the waning power of Maskhadov and his circle. More likely is an increase in the proportion of guerrillas who favor terrorist tactics like Basaev, but who are not under any centralized command. The IWPR correspondents Aliev and Zhadaev interviewed Mate Tsikhesasashvili, a former member of the separatist parliament, who told them that “the strangest aspect of this is that the Russian intelligence services and military are mainly going after and destroying those Chechen commanders who are in favor of civilized warfare, who are enemies not only of Russia but of the radical Islamic movements, and who will not accept foreigners fighting on their side….There can no longer be a peaceful outcome to the armed conflict in Chechnya.”
That gloomy forecast was indirectly confirmed by an unlikely source: The head of the FSB directorate for Chechnya. Yury Rozhen was quoted by the website Newsru.com on March 11 as warning that a complete end to terrorism in Chechnya was not likely in spite of the recent captures. He called the republic “fertile ground” for further terrorist recruitment, in that Chechens who have lost members to the pro-Moscow forces will continue to support the guerrillas either openly or in secret.