Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 43

On February 28, Nezavisimaya Gazeta published an interview with Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov. The Monitor’s correspondent has learned that the newspaper’s editors approached Maskhadov’s press secretary, Mairbek Vachagaev, who is living in Paris, with questions for the Chechen president. Using his own channels, Vachagaev somehow got in touch with Maskhadov, after which a cassette of the Chechen president answering the questions was sent to the Nezavisimaya Gazeta in Azerbaijan. In general, the interview contained nothing cardinally new: Maskhadov simply repeated what he is already said in other press interviews. For example, he said once again that he believes negotiations between his government and Moscow are needed. Maskhadov said “it is necessary to stop the war and sign a peace treaty, to establish normal, good-neighborly, civilized relations between the Russian Federation and the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, inasmuch as vagueness in relations is the main reason for all misfortunes and wars.” Maskhadov also claimed that he controls all of the Chechen rebel units, including those led by the well-known field commanders Shamil Basaev, Ruslan Gelaev and Khattab, and that not a single operation is carried out without his knowledge. “Each day at 18:00 hours I receive summaries from the operational departments,” Maskhadov said. “I am aware of each armored personnel carrier destroyed and of each soldier and officer killed. Frankly speaking, we did not have such a centralized command even during the other war.” The Chechen president also said that attacks on troop columns, checkpoints and military command posts were part of the guerrilla war which the leaders of the resistance movement have openly announced. Maskhadov claimed that he, as before, controls the situation in all the republic’s towns and villages. “There is a commander of a unit of [rebel] militiamen in each population center,” Maskhadov said. “He controls the situation there, not the head of the administration, who was appointed by the occupation regime. He has an aide, who maintains links with the population and the youth (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, February 28).

As might have been expected, the Maskhadov interview elicited a highly negative reaction from the Russian authorities. Sergei Yastrzhembsky, President Vladimir Putin’s spokesman on Chechnya, expressed regret over the publication “of the latest nonsense from Maskhadov in one Russia’s most respected newspapers.” “The former president of unrecognized Ichkeria, a person who has lost literally everything–his quasistate, any kind of apparatus, his many-thousand-man army of well-armed bandits and separatists–a person who several times a week sleeps in a different place in search of safe asylum, is acting as if, as before, he controls or answers for anything in Chechnya,” the official Itar-Tass news agency quoted Yastrzhembsky as saying. The presidential aide said that in reality neither Basaev, Gelaev nor Khattab takes orders from Maskhadov, and that the three field commanders have for long time simply ignored the erstwhile Chechen “supreme commander,” viewing it as unnecessary “to clear with terrorist acts with him, much less the financing received from abroad” (Russian agencies, March 1).

Even if one were to agree with Yastrzhembsky that Maskhadov in reality does not control the rebel movement, such a conclusion would put Moscow in an even more uncomfortable position. It would mean that the war in Chechnya is a purely guerrilla war–meaning a popular war. Indeed, it is worth remembering the rumor that the Kremlin hesitated for a long time before taking out Djohar Dudaev due to its well-founded fear that killing the separatist leader would leave the rebel movement even more dispersed and radical.