Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 6 Issue: 35

Writing in the September 19 edition of Novaya Gazeta, correspondent Anna Politkovskaya provided new details concerning the death of Aslan Maskhadov last March based on documents from the criminal investigation into the incident, including the testimony of four of his confederates who were taken into custody. According to Politkovskaya, the evidence shows that Maskhadov was “lulled by the promises” of Andreas Gross, the Swiss parliamentary deputy and former Chechnya rapporteur for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), who was working with the Kremlin to arrange the participation of largely pro-Kremlin figures for a roundtable on Chechnya. Gross, she wrote, managed to convince Maskahdov’s representative in London, Akhmad Zakaev, that there was the possibility of a genuine negotiated settlement with the Kremlin. As a result, “Maskhadov somewhat lost vigilance and began to actively use a mobile phone, even though during all the previous years of the war, the mobile phone—with the help of which President Dudaev had been killed—was something forbidden for him.” Politkovskaya noted that Maskhadov mainly used the phone for SMS messages rather than conversations, but that the Russian special services were still able to trace those messages to the village of Tolstoi-Yurt, where he was hiding from November 2004 until his death on March 8 of this year.

It should be noted that this roughly corresponds to the version of how Maskhadov was located and killed that Shamil Basaev gave in an interview with Sweden’s TT news agency shortly after Maskhadov’s death (see Chechnya Weekly, March 23).

Politkovskaya wrote that Maskhadov in his final month was “tired of war and constantly being underground, with all his strength aimed at concluding a peace agreement on the most compromising conditions, was prepared to take the most radical steps and went for them, [and] as proof of his readiness, he announced a unilateral ceasefire.” According to Politkovskaya, Maskhadov ended up “outplaying” the Kremlin on the issue of peace initiatives. “By March, Maskhadov’s activity had become intolerable for the Kremlin. The process went out of Gross’s control, although Gross is a strong person. The conversations about ‘Maskahdov’s peace initiatives’ had become a constant theme in European political drawing rooms (the Europarliament, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe)—I visited them and therefore I know. In the continent’s high diplomatic circles Putin began to move off into a secondary role—he found himself with the reputation of ‘not wanting to give way, in defiance of common sense,’ ‘leading the situation to the next Beslan.’ There came a moment when it became clear that Putin was experiencing significance pressure from Western leaders in connection with Maskhadov’s activity. What is the point here? That Maskhadov’s liquidation was the direct result of his peace aspirations of last winter. He signed his own sentence by seizing the initiative for peace even for a short time.”

Politkovskaya, again citing documents from the official investigation, wrote that Maskhadov summoned Shamil Basaev for talks and that Basaev came to Tolstoi-Yurt on December 13, 2004, staying for six days, during which Maskhadov managed to convince him to observe the upcoming unilateral ceasefire. Politkovskaya also criticized Maskhadov: she cited the testimony of one of the eyewitnesses, who quoted Maskhadov as saying that the Beslan school seizure had been “a mistake” and that he was “very displeased” by it. Politkovskaya wrote: “‘A mistake.’ Not a catastrophe?”

Finally, Politkovskaya noted that when Maskhadov first arrived in Tolstoi-Yurt with his bodyguards, they passed through checkpoints into zones completely controlled by Chechen Interior Ministry troops and kadyrovtsy. “These details once again, albeit indirectly, prove the thesis that in November 2004 there really was no order for the liquidation or even the arrest of Maskhadov. And it appeared [only] by the end of February 2005.” She also noted eyewitness testimony that when Basaev arrived for his meeting with Maskhadov, he was picked up by Maskhadov’s people at a bus stop in the village of Avtury, which was also under federal control, even though “every person on our planet” would recognize Basaev’s face. “Basaev was standing at a bus stop completely alone. Without a mask. With an assault rifle and a sleeping bag. Remember the official version of why Basaev can’t be caught? Because he is supposedly constantly in the mountainous woodlands, hiding in caves, and that if he changes location, he does so surrounded by a crowd of people armed to the teeth, and therefore his capture might cost too many of ‘our’ lives…Does this mean that until now there has been order for Basaev’s arrest? This is also a question without an answer.”