Just what are current relations between Aslan Maskhadov and Shamil Basaev? On June 13 the radio station Ekho Moskvy reported on indications that the elected head of Chechnya’s separatist government is closer to the terrorist warlord than either has acknowledged in the recent past. Maskhadov’s representative in London, however, continued to insist that there are major disagreements between the two. And he cast doubt on the accuracy of the reported quotations from Maskhadov.
According to the Ekho Moskvy website, Maskhadov and Basaev “have forgotten their former conflicts and once again have united.” The website drew that conclusion from a taped statement by Maskhadov that had been given to Agence France-Presse. The statement included the striking phrase, “We are united as never before.” According to the website Lenta.ru, Maskhadov said that he continued to condemn acts of terrorism committed by rebel guerrillas, but also that he and Basaev had met face-to-face last month.
The website Grani.ru reported on June 13 that neither the Maskhadov government nor any other source had confirmed the authenticity of the tape; but if it is accurate it raises several questions. Is Maskhadov now restoring to Basaev the government posts from which he had fired him because of Basaev’s admitted involvement in terrorist acts against civilians? Is Maskhadov taking any concrete steps to try to prevent Basaev from committing further terrorist acts? How often do they meet personally–and are those meetings devoted to debating whether Basaev’s methods are justified, or to jointly planning strategic and tactical operations against the federal forces, or both?
In an interview with Grani.ru, Maskhadov’s London representative, Akhmad Zakaev, said that the leadership of the separatist government “has contacts from time to time with the radical resistance groups, including with Shamil Basaev, primarily for the purpose of convincing them to refrain from the use of suicide bombers.” Asked by Grani.ru if Basaev and the Maskhadov government could be called “allies,” Zakaev replied that “in the political life of Chechnya, Shamil Basaev has always been a political opponent of President Maskhadov’s. When peace comes, we possibly will again turn out to be on opposite poles of the political spectrum. But that is not the reality today, when Russian soldiers are indiscriminately murdering all, regardless of their political or ideological views.”
The Grani.ru interviewer pointed out that after last October’s raid on the “Nord-Ost” musical in Moscow, Maskhadov not only fired Basaev from his government positions but also opened a criminal case against him. Zakaev replied that, “Basaev is still, as before, removed from all his duties and will remain so until he renounces unacceptable methods of conducting the war. There cannot be political cooperation between President Maskhadov and Shamil Basaev.”
“If you condemn terrorist acts,” asked the Grani.ru interviewer, “then why don’t you arrest Basaev?” Zakaev answered, “Let Putin first arrest Manilov, Shamanov, Troshev and many others guilty of concrete war crimes…The actions of Basaev are minor by comparison…When peace comes, then our government unquestionably will seek the arrest and trial of all war criminals.”
“Does that mean,” asked Grani.ru, “that Maskhadov does not control Basaev?” Zakaev replied that “Basaev definitely does not seek the consent of President Maskhadov for his activities, and our government has no relations with him. He is supported only by a minority, though it is well known what can be done even by a small group of people who are prepared to accept their own deaths.” Zakaev insisted that “the overwhelming majority of the field commanders and guerrillas” support Maskhadov. “If it were not so,” he said, “Russia would long ago have been turned into a bloodbath.”
Zakaev said he could not confirm the authenticity of the AFP tape, having learned about it only through the Internet. He suggested that Maskhadov’s words may have been distorted in the course of translation from Chechen into Russian, then into French, then into English, and then back into Russian.
Zakaev also summarized and interpreted new information about the “Nord-Ost” episode. He said that Basaev claims to have sent the band of hostage takers to Moscow for the purpose of seizing military and administrative targets, and that the decision to seize the theater instead was made only after Basaev “lost contact with the group and it apparently fell under the control of the Russian special services.”
Another condemnation of terrorist acts came in the form of a June 16 press release from the separatist government’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It stated that on May 30 Maskhadov had issued an executive order instructing “all Chechen armed resistance units to conduct military operations ‘in strict accordance’ with the relevant requirements of the Geneva Conventions,” outlawing “military operations in civilian populated areas,” and stating “that the use of lethal force against Chechen citizens involved in Russian military and security forces is permitted only in cases when ‘they pose an imminent threat to life.'”