Aslan Maskhadov’s assassination will undoubtedly have a negative impact on the overall situation in Chechnya, as the new leadership shifts the tactics and strategy of the Chechen resistance movement. Instead of the liberal Maskhadov, who constantly looked for ways to end the war, there will be leaders for whom the question over methods will no longer represent a matter of principle. Those responsible for Maskhadov’s killing knew this perfectly well. It is therefore possible to suggest that Moscow deliberately chose a path that further destabilizes the situation in Chechnya. Maskhadov’s assassination will invariably lead to the escalation of military action, and possibility to more combat activities beyond Chechnya’s borders – precisely at a time when spreading the war is already becoming a main objective of the Chechen resistance. As the director of the Institute of Strategic Assessments and Analysis, Vagif Gusseinov, wrote in Komsomolskaya pravda on March 11, 2005: “[U]ndoubtedly, there will be other efforts to destabilize the situation not only in Chechnya but also in Dagestan and other regions of Caucasus.”
The Chechens have lost their president for the second time in ten years in the midst of military actions – the first time was in April 1996, when Djokhar Dudaev was killed. However, if after the death of Dudaev the political scene was dominated by several strong and independent figures, including Zelimkhan Yandarbiev, Aslan Maskhadov, and Ruslan Gelaev, now the majority of analysts are much less certain as to who will be the obvious successor. The fear is that no one will be able to provide a counterweight to Shamil Basaev.
But many analysts completely ignore the wave of new politicians that had formed during the course of this military campaign, in which the quality of a military commander is perfectly combined with the ambition to become a state-level politician. Their names mean little to the wide circle of specialists who are interested in Caucasus-related issues, but among the Chechens, they play a notable role in the resistance movement; these include Akhmed Avdorkhanov and Isa Munaev. However, it should be noted that among the figures representing the so-called “old guard,” Doku Umarov looms large, as his position solidified after Gelaev’s death on February 28, 2004.
One of Maskhadov’s main achievements was to leave no question as to his successor following his death, resolved well before the tragedy occurred. Maskhadov determined that his successor would be the First Deputy Supreme Commander-in-Chief and the Chairman of Majlis-Shura. While Basaev has attempted to insert his influence into the process by incorrectly stating that the State Defense Committee decided that the successor of the President would be the Chairman of the Sharia Court, it was in fact Maskhadov who was responsible for the naming of his successor.
This individual has turned out to be the young and little-known Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev. That Sadulaev has taken control speaks volumes of Maskhadov’s legacy: a well-organized system of vertical power that refutes those who have predicted the demise of the Chechen resistance movement for the last five years. In fact, the reaction of the resistance movement testifies to its high level of discipline and understanding of the situation on the ground. In contrast with years past, it will be easier for Sadulaev to take control because he will undoubtedly be supported by the jamaats (religious groups or societies), which are often mistakenly described by the press and some analysts as being unconditionally aligned with Basaev.
Moreover, those who have carefully followed events in Chechnya from 1997 to 1999 know that Sadulaev was not picked accidentally. Sadulaev was the leader of the only jamaat in the city of Argun, which, in contrast with others, carried out non-Wahhabi related missionary activities. (There is also a jamaat in Urus-Martan, headed by the Akhmadov brothers; in Alkhan-Kala, headed by Arbi Baraev; and in the village of Khatuni, subordinated to Islam Khalimov.) Apart from their religious functions, most of the jamaats in Chechnya also represent military detachments. Sadulaev’s role became more defined when, during the standoff between the radicals and authorities in 1998, he did not support the leader of all Chechen jamaats – Abdurrakhman. After these events, Abdurrakhman was stripped of his Chechen citizenship and declared persona non grata in Chechnya. He died in 2001 while fighting in one of the jamaats as a regular solider.
After meeting with Sadulaev on a number of occasions, Maskhadov asked that he create religious programs on Chechen TV, which soon became a huge success in the republic. Especially popular were the youth programs on Islamic orientation. The programs presented Islam from a traditional and pragmatic standpoint. Essentially, Sadulaev was neither a Sufi nor a Wahhabi. This allowed Maskhadov to characterize him as a thoughtful individual, immune to the provocations of the rival factions. Maskhadov even offered Sadulaev the head of the Supreme Sharia Court of Chechnya, but Sadulaev turned down the offer, explaining that he did not have sufficient clerical knowledge to judge other people.
Since 1999, Sadulaev has been one of Maskhadov’s most loyal field commanders.
That same year, Maskhadov decided to include Sadulaev in the State Commission on the Reform of the Constitution of Chechnya. On the eve of the second war, Sadulaev became Maskhadov’s assistant on matters of religion, but worked in this capacity for only a few months before war broke out. (It should be clarified that the President’s advisor on religious matters was a very famous religious figure, Salamu, from the village of Mesker-Yurt. The duties of advisor and assistant were distinct; their duties did not overlap. It was reported that Sadulaev and Salamu were respectful towards each other.) When the war began, Sadulaev headed the popular resistance movement, commanding the popular militia from Argun.
In terms of Sadulaev’s subordination and closeness to the President, his selection as Maskhadov’s successor comes as no surprise. He seems to also have been chosen in part for his character, as Maskhadov had spoken of selecting a successor with traits similar to his own. In an interview with the BBC on March 10, 2005, President Maskhadov’s son Anzor recalled his father saying, “About a year ago my father said that if he were to be killed, the new president would be a person, who would resemble him. He would be a man of patience and restraint and he would continue our course.”
That Sadulaev is a religious leader should come as no surprise either – and does not justify inferences about the religious character of the Chechen resistance. The Chechens have traditionally elected leaders who held some kind of formal religious position: Sheikh Mansur (1785-1794), Imam Shamil (1840-1859), Sheikh Kunta-Khaji (1850s-1867), and Sheikh Ali Mitaev (1918-1925), to name a few. Thus, for Chechens, this represents a certain historical tradition rather than a movement toward religious fanaticism.
However, it will unfortunately take some time to explain such a decision to the international community, as representatives of the Chechen resistance movement will have a hard time explaining that Sadulaev is a transitional figure. But doing so is a serious matter – the long-term fate of the Chechen people will depend on the West’s perception of the resistance movement.
Mayrbek Vachagaev is a PhD candidate in Social Sciences at the University of Paris. He is the author of the book, “Chechnya in the 19th Century Caucasian Wars.”