The First Channel (Russian state television) serves de facto as the most influential voice of the Putin regime, reaching as it does into nearly every village and hamlet in the vast sprawl that is the Russian Republic. One of the best-known political commentators on the First Channel is journalist Mikhail Leontyev, who has his own television program called “Odnako” (However). According to Moscow-resident and pro-Kremlin Chechen, Shamil Beno, Leontyev is “a propagandist whom they appreciate a lot in the Kremlin.” Leontyev recently featured the following grisly scene on one of his programs, Beno said in an item published on kavkaz-forum.ru on April 4: “On Leontyev’s program, ‘Odnako,’ they showed this: someone is coming out of a basement [in Chechnya] dragging after him a toilet seat. He says: ‘It smells in there. You see, they just rubbed Maskhadov out in the crapper…'”
Leontyev’s crude “humor” concerning the March 8 killing of Chechen separatist president Aslan Maskhadov was intended to recall Russian President Vladimir Putin’s gangster-like vow, made in the autumn of 1999, to “rub out the bandits in the crapper.” The seemingly endless Russo-Chechen conflict, with its tens of thousands of civilians killed, as well as the marked rise of xenophobia in Russia in recent years, are traceable in no small part back to the sentiments expressed in Putin’s vengeful promise.
In an item published by kavkaz-forum.ru on March 28 under the provocative title “The Chechen people interest no-one,” Leontyev elaborated on the theme addressed in his television program. “From the political point of view,” Leontyev underlined, Maskhadov’s killing “represents a great success for Russia.” Now, for example, the U.S. State Department is no longer able to whine, “We continue to insist that the sole way out [of the Chechen conflict] is a political resolution,” a refrain which represented “a mockery of Russia.”
As for the Europeans, Leontyev continued, they should now stop simpering over the rash of kidnappings in Chechnya, particularly those carried out by the pro-Moscow Kadyrovites. True, the Kadyrovites are bandits, but they are pro-Russian bandits fighting anti-Russian bandits. Those who seek to apply European human rights standards to the Caucasus are “cretins” and “sick people.”
Leontyev’s cynical commentary seems to be the authentic voice of the Putin regime as it is addressed to the Russian populace. It should be noted that the regime’s treatment of Maskhadov’s body, which was publicly displayed stripped to waist, as well as the gleeful celebration of his having been “rubbed out,” have proved deeply offensive to virtually all Chechens, who believe that his remains ought to have been turned over to his family for a proper Muslim burial. One Russian specialist, Maksim Shevchenko, noted on kavkaz-forum.ru on March 22: “I have to work a great deal with [pro-Moscow] Chechens, the Zavgaevites and Kadyrovites, and, especially after the defilement of the body of Aslan Maskhadov, even the enemies of Maskhadov say that with the Kremlin, with this Moscow, which treats a deceased person in such a fashion we cannot have any dealings.” Other visitors to Chechnya have reported similar reactions.
Aimed at Russian intellectuals, kavkaz-forum.ru and the associated website polit.ru, recently provided the transcript of a lengthy round-table discussion containing remarks made by specialists on what Maskhadov’s killing tells us about Putin and the Russian leadership as a whole. “What does the death of Maskhadov demonstrate?” asked Ida Kulklina, a member of the Public Council of the President of the Russian Federation to Assist the Development of the Institutions of a Civil Society. “First,” she answered, “[Maskhadov’s elimination] is a gesture by which the Kremlin showed that it intends to ‘rub them out in the crapper’ to the end. In addition, it liquidated the last symbol of legitimacy in Chechnya…. The Russian side says ‘crappers,’ “rub them out to the end.’ What does ‘to the end’ mean? On average, the group [of separatist fighters] is estimated at between 1,500 and 2,500. You kill two thousand of them, and another two thousand appear. It is an endless process, one not conducive to negotiation but rather to a continuation of the war.”
Sergei Gradirovsky, chief advisor to the Plenipotentiary Representative of the President of the Russian Federation in the Volga Federal District, focused on Putin’s deepest psychological impulses in his comments: “There is of course,” Gradirovsky said, “a fear of Khasavyurt [the town where the 1994-1996 war came to a negotiated end], a fantastic fear of appearing weak, because negotiations, especially negotiations with Maskhadov, could be interpreted as the weakness of the Kremlin and, in particular, the weakness of the president.”
In addition to an intense fear of appearing weak, there was, Gradirovsky believes, an additional element of personal vengeance in Putin’s decision to liquidate Maskhadov: “He [Putin] could not agree to negotiations [with Maskhadov], it would have been a personal humiliation before a man who said: ‘God is above us, but the kozly (billy-goats) are below us.'” As pro-democracy journalist, Andrei Piontkovsky, has written: “When British Prime Minister Tony Blair…timidly reproached Putin for annihilating Grozny, Putin replied sincerely and with conviction. It turns out that one of the Chechen rebels called him a ‘kozyol’ – something close to ‘bastard’. In the St. Petersburg courtyard of his childhood, such insults were never forgiven. Turning Grozny into Dresden or Hiroshima is, in Putin’s understanding, a perfectly suitable response to being called a bastard.” (Quoted in Matthew Evangelista, The Chechen Wars, 2002, p. 74)
If Kuklina and Gradirovsky (both employees of the Putin regime) are correct, an intense fear of appearing weak coupled with a strong psychological impulse to avenge a perceived insult is behind Maskhadov’s killing.
But what motivated the separatist president in the lead-up to his assassination? Grani.ru reported in a piece published on April 6 entitled, “Aslan Maskhadov was lured into a trap under the pretext of negotiations,” that Maskhadov spent his last days living under the illusion that the Russian authorities, assisted by the Europeans, seriously intended to negotiate a settlement to the bloody conflict with him. “[Maskhadov] descended to the lowlands, where there are more federal troops and more Kadyrov police about, actively made use of a mobile phone, conducted several meetings, moving from place to place. In so doing, it should be specially remarked, he constantly called upon the [separatist] field commanders to strictly observe a cease-fire.”
According to Taisa Isaeva, director of the Information Center of the Council of Non-Governmental Organizations of Chechnya, copies of a tape of one of Maskhadov’s last interviews – perhaps his last – have been circulating among human rights activists. “In this interview,” Isaeva said in an item posted by the hro.org website on April 5, “the President of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria speaks about impending peace negotiations with Russia. In so doing, he names those countries that are to serve as intermediaries in the impending political dialogue between him and the Russian side. In Maskhadov’s words, the ministries of foreign affairs of Germany and Switzerland were to assist in the negotiations. To one or another extent, representatives of the OSCE were also to take part. These proposals had been transmitted to Aslan Maskhadov through his special representative [in Europe] Umar Khambiev…” It was because of these perceived fast-approaching negotiations that Maskhadov was insisting that “the unilateral ceasefire declared by him be observed.”
So there seems to be evidence that at the end of his life Maskhadov was energetically seeking to help bring an end to the second Russo-Chechen war, as he and the late General Aleksandr Lebed had earlier stopped the bloodshed of the first conflict in 1996. But the Kremlin, we now understand, had a different scenario in mind.
John B. Dunlop is a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. He is an expert on Russia’s two wars in Chechnya, nationalism in the former Soviet Union, Russian cultural politics, and the politics of religion in Russia.