Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 2 Issue: 17

The no. 17 (April 26) issue of the weekly Obshchaya Gazeta contains an article by the elected president of Ingushetia, Ruslan Aushev, a former Soviet general, urging the Russian leadership to begin negotiations with President Maskhadov of Chechnya (whose five-year term is due to expire in January 2002).

Why negotiate with Maskhadov? In the first place, Aushev underlines, “Maskhadov is the legally elected president [of Chechnya].” Many in Russia claim that “Maskhadov is a criminal and he has discredited himself,” but the fact of the matter is this: “There has been no trial [of Maskhadov] and no investigation, nothing! To call a legally elected president a criminal is already to revert to the year 1937, when absolutely anyone could be declared a traitor or a spy.”

The Russian leadership should also take into consideration the mentality of the Chechens. “The most interesting thing,” Aushev writes, “is that the inhabitants of Chechnya, despite their own at times very sharp assessments of the activity of their president, deem him to be their president! Whether he is good or bad, they say, he is our president.” Boris Yeltsin, Aushev points out, “was not always beloved of the people, but he was always considered the President of the Russian Federation.” Why, then, this intense desire to see the legitimately elected president of Chechnya “exclusively in handcuffs”?

In addition, Aushev emphasizes, it should be borne in mind that Chechnya is an autonomous republic and not a Russian oblast. “A governor,” he writes, “can now be removed [by President Putin], but to remove an elected president in a national republic constitutes a problem. There it would be perceived not so much as a removal as an insult to an entire people. After all, it is they who elected him! What is a president? He is the same thing as a father in a [national] family.”

Today, Aushev writes, Chechens are more and more citing Maskhadov’s name “as the man who is obligated from the Chechen side to head the peace process.” Aushev then proceeds to share his own opinion of Maskhadov: “I know Maskhadov personally. In those three ‘peace’ years–from 1996 to 1999–we would meet very often. I know him as a man. He is a man who has a concept of conscience, of honor, and of decency.” In addition, Aushev stresses, Maskhadov “was one of the very best commanders in our [Soviet] army. I underline: in our not-yet-corrupted army. That says a lot.”

Much of Aushev’s essay is devoted to Maskhadov’s presidency during the difficult years of 1996-1999. “Everyone says,” he writes, “that Maskhadov turned out to be weak as a leader. But let’s look at the situation he received. Maskhadov received, or rather inherited, the idea of [Chechen] independence… He could not change it. It would have been the same thing, say, as the Yeltsin of 1996 suddenly declaring, ‘Down with a market economy! Down with democracy!’ They would not have reelected him.”

When Maskhadov took office in January of 1997, Aushev stresses, he “received a destroyed republic with a collapsed economy. Plus thousands of men armed to the teeth.” To whom was he to have turned for help? “To the federal center? No. The federal center was playing a waiting game until all this ‘Chechen epopee’ should end and Chechnya should be forced to its knees.”

Maskhadov, Aushev recalls, “concluded with President Yeltsin [in 1997] a treaty putting an end-so it was declared-to the 400-year confrontation of Chechens and Russians.” The Chechen president then waited for the words of that treaty (and the economic agreements signed in conjunction with it) to be put into effect. But nothing happened.

In light of Russia’s failure to help rebuild the devastated Chechen economy and infrastructure, Aushev observes, extremists such as Movladi Udugov and Shamil’ Basaev were able to strengthen their positions. “And abroad [that is, in Muslim countries] there were forces who were not opposed to destabilizing the situation in the North Caucasus.”

If Maskhadov, rather than Djohar Dudaev, had been elected Chechen president in 1991, he would, Aushev speculates, for certain have “led Chechnya down a different path.” “But in 1996-1997 did he have a choice? Does he have one today?” In real-world politics, there are no simple solutions.

To be sure, Aushev acknowledges, Maskhadov made serious tactical errors during the period 1996-1999. He should have taken more decisive action versus Udugov and other dangerous ideologues. On his watch, the Wahhabis were able to establish a foothold in Chechnya, whereas Dudaev had largely kept them out of the republic. “Dudaev was a secular man…. They [the Russians] killed Dudaev, and what did they get? A full program of Wahhabism with a Sudanese accent.”

If Russia persists in refusing to talk with Maskhadov, Aushev warns, then it will end up talking to extremists like Basaev and Arsanov. “There is only one reasonable man there, Maskhadov. He, I repeat, is a normal fellow, a normal [Soviet] officer who stands with both feet on the ground.” A failure to negotiate with Maskhadov, Aushev implies, will have severe consequences not only for Chechnya but for Russia as well.