Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 6 Issue: 35

Six months have passed since the murder of Aslan Maskhadov in the Chechen village of Tolstoi-Yurt on March 8. There was speculation after the Chechen president’s death about who would replace him as rebel leader. The Russian authorities did their best to inspire an armed power struggle in the camp of the separatists to split them into different factions. Aslambek Aslakhanov, an advisor to the Russian president on Chechen affairs, even held a special press conference in Moscow in which he said some good words about Doku Umarov, one of the top field commanders, probably hoping that this would enrage Shamil Basaev, another Chechen commander who may have wanted to replace Maskhadov. Neither Basaev nor Umarov, however, became president; the post went to a person almost unknown beyond the Chechen borders, Sheikh Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev, the head of the rebel Sharia Court, a Chechen from the town of Argun . It turned out that he was chosen as Maskhadov’s successor in the year of 2002, during a meeting of rebel commanders in Chechnya’s mountains.

Initially, the Russian authorities described him as an Arab—a sheikh from Saudi Arabia —and some Russian media sources even said he was the Supreme Judge of the Federal Court of Malaysia. It was very important for the Kremlin to make the world believe that the Arabs control the Chechen resistance and that Russia is therefore fighting in Chechnya against the forces of international terrorism, not against a local insurgency. After Maskhadov’s death, the authorities hoped they could sell this idea to the international community once and for all. They made Abdul-Khalim “an Arab” for this purpose. Nevertheless, the Chechen surname of Sadulaev made it impossible for the FSB to continue this strategy in the information war; moreover, no matter what Russia said and the world community thought, the people in Chechnya knew Abdul-Khalim quite well because of his preaching on TV before the second Chechen war.

When this tactic failed, the Russian authorities started to talk about the new rebel leader as a symbolic figure, a toy in the hands of Basaev—who they said, was the person who really controlled the rebel forces. The aim of this tactic was to discredit Sadulaev in the eyes of the West and the domestic anti-war forces, to not let him look like a potential negotiator like Maskhadov. The Kremlin responded quite nervously to the statement of ACPC Co-Chairman Zbigniew Brzezinski, who expressed hope in an April 1 press release that “the new Chechen leadership will continue the moderate policies of his predecessor, Aslan Maskhadov.” The response was repeated by Alu Alkhanov, the pro-Russian president of Chechnya, who said in May that “neither Brzezinski nor anybody else…will make Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev a legitimate figure.”

Yet it looks like Sadulaev himself does not care much about his legitimate status in the eyes of world leaders. He has chosen the tactic of the Russian tsar Ivan the Terrible in the famous Soviet movie in which the tsar, having heard that Europa does not recognize him as a legitimate Russian monarch, responds: “It will recognize me if I am strong.” In his first appeal to the world community, Abdul-Khalim demonstrated quite clearly how the new policy of the separatists would look. His statement of gratitude to European nations issued on March 21 said that “the leadership of the Chechen state will continue to have close contacts and friendly relationships with the whole civilized world; however the ideology of this world should also consider the views of the Muslim nation of Chechnya.”

The message to the West in the statement is that Islam will play a significant role in independent Chechnya , but at the same time—unlike Afghanistan under the Taliban regime—the country will be part of the international community and will respect international law. As for negotiations with Russia, Sadulaev’s first statement said that the separatists are open for discussion but will never call for dialogue themselves until the Russians ask for it first. In an interview with the Arabic newspaper Al-Aman, quoted by on June 19, Sadulaev stated this even more clearly: “War can be stopped only by war,” he said. In May, Sadulaev showed what he meant by this phrase, issuing a decree establishing the Caucasus front, which includes the North Caucasian republics and Stavropol Krai and Krasnodar Krai, where ethnic Russians predominate. The Kremlin took this decree very seriously, which was proved by a large-scale redeployment of the troops in the region (see EDM, August 11, 2005). Since then, the Russian authorities have spoken even more negatively about Adbul-Khalim. Ilya Shabalkin, the former spokesman for the Russian forces in Chechnya, even called Sadulaev a representative of al-Qaeda in the North Caucasus.

Later, Sadulaev again demonstrated his toughness by releasing an appeal to the Chechen nation in which he criticized the political wing of the rebels, especially former Maskhadov representatives in the West. The appeal, which was posted by the separatist Kavkazcenter website on August 19, said that “if somebody really thinks that the fate of the Chechen people is being decided in Strasbourg, Washington, or Moscow, they are wrong. The curtain will be drawn down by the Chechen Mujahideen who defend their Motherland against Russian aggression.”

Thus Sadulaev again made clear that he will pursue a a policy of self-reliance and will not do anything just to please somebody in Russia or in the West. Sadulaev also declared in that appeal that the “home factor,” meaning the people who permanently reside in the Chechen republic, not abroad, would play the main role in his government. In other words, Sadulaev declared the creation of a shadow state in the occupied territory as was the case in the 19th century during the first Caucasian war. During that period, Imam Shamil’s Imamate (Islamic state) effectively functioned near the garrisons of the Russian tsarist army.

Several decrees to reform the separatist government followed the August appeal. The key persons in Sadulaev’s government are Shamil Basaev, a radical and ruthless warlord, and Akhmed Zakaev, a Chechen with the image of a moderate leader in Russia and in the West. It means that the separatists have closed the doors for the negotiations, but are ready to open them when needed. Since the Russian side is not interested in dialogue, Shamil Basaev will play the leading role. Yet he can easily be replaced by Zakaev, whose duty now is to help Chechen refugees in Europe , if the Russian side asks for peace. The newly formed Caucasian front will push the Russians to do it more quickly.

As one can see, the idealism and naïveté that characterized the policy of Maskhadov, who believed that a 30 minute face-to-face meeting with Vladimir Putin would be enough to stop the war, have been replaced by Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev’s policy of hard pragmatism and self-reliance. Aslan Maskhadov appealed to the reason and goodwill of the Russian president, but Sadulaev will never do anything of the kind. While Basaev will do his job as the Military Commander, Sadulaev will wait until Putin himself appeals to the goodwill and reason of the Chechen separatist leader.