Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 4 Issue: 29

In an area that occupies less than 1 percent of Russia’s territory, why have the federal forces not been able to track down Chechnya’s separatist leaders–especially those who openly admit responsibility for terrorist attacks on Russian civilians? After all, in 1996 the Russians managed to pinpoint Dzhokhar Dudaev’s hideout by eavesdropping on his mobile telephone conversations. They then killed him with a precision missile strike.

Sanobar Shermatova suggested in an August 5 article for Moskovskie novosti that there may be an agreement between the two sides not to attack each other’s top leaders. Sources in Moscow’s well-connected Chechen community told her that after Dudaev’s death “an agreement was reached between Moscow and Dudaev’s followers, according to which safety was guaranteed for the top leaders on both sides.” It was this agreement that reportedly allowed Shamil Basaev to escape from Dagestan after the failure of his 1999 invasion. Similarly, “at the very time when Moscow was accusing Maskhadov of having organized the terrorist attack on the Dubrovka theater, the sources of Moskovskie novosti say that he was in a safe place in one of the republics of the northern Caucasus.” Vakha Arsanov, the separatist government’s former vice president, is said to have spent much of his time in Nazran, Ingushetia.

It is even claimed that the agreement still applies to Basaev, despite his public claims of responsibility for terrorist atrocities in both Chechnya and Moscow. “Informed people say,” wrote Shermatova, “that he has not abandoned his native Vedeno district, where he is training future terrorists.”

Why would the Kremlin, which has a long history of breaking agreements with Chechens and other minorities, still be keeping this one? One possible explanation, Shermatova suggested, is that “it would not be advantageous to the top military bureaucracy if the enemy side’s trade-mark figures were to exit the stage. If Basaev and Maskhadov were to go, how would the security agencies justify their continued presence in Chechnya–which they have transformed into a source of income and a base for advancing their careers.” But even if this theory is true, she predicted that the current situation cannot continue. With Russia’s presidential elections nearing, Putin “will have to show positive results in Chechnya”–either by destroying the rebel leaders or by negotiating with them.

Though Shermatova did not address the issue, it is worth noting that such an agreement (if it exists) would appear not to cover Akhmad Kadyrov, who has been the target of repeated assassination attempts over the last few years. That does not necessarily prove that her sources are wrong: As repeated leaks from the FSB and military have shown, Moscow’s security agencies have little love for Kadyrov.