Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 116

The state’s RIA news agency and NTV television reported yesterday that Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov could soon be stripped of his power. NTV, citing sources in “competent organs”–an apparent reference to Russia’s Special Services–reported yesterday that a new Chechen rebel leadership is being formulated, with the active participation of Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban movement. The Taliban’s leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, allegedly recently held secret meetings in Afghanistan with former Chechen President Zelimkhan Yandarbiev, during which they decided who will occupy which posts in a new Chechen “Jihad” government. The top post will reportedly go to Shamil Basaev, while rebel field commander Khattab will be in charge of the separatists’ military units and Yandarbiev himself will be foreign minister. Maskhadov will not be a member of this new government. Mullah Omar also reportedly promised to give Basaev and Khattab comprehensive assistance, including mercenaries from radical international Islamic organizations (NTV, June 14). The Taliban leader, it should be noted, has met with Yandarbiev in the past (see the Monitor, January 18, 2000).

The fact that this story was first reported by the state’s RIA news agency and given big play on NTV, which was recently taken over by the state-controlled Gazprom gas monopoly, raises questions about its veracity. The fact that no specific official was cited as the source should give pause, as should the fact that the Russian special services have persistently claimed–often without proof–that there are close contacts between the Taliban and the Chechen rebels. Indeed, the state’s Itar-Tass news agency has claimed that Maskhadov himself had succeeded in winning some support from the Taliban leaders–even though, according to other reports, the Chechen president warned some of his field commanders, including Ruslan Gelaev, to try and get out from under the “terrorist-religious fanatic” tag that the rebels had been stuck with thanks to “mercenaries” and “Wahhabis” like Khattab, who is a native of Jordan.

Responding to the report that he might be stripped of his power, Maskhadov said that the Kremlin has organized “sensations” of this kind in the past and that he was thus inclined to distrust such reports in the Russian media. He also said that if there was indeed anything to the report, it only represented the personal point of view of Yandarbiev–who, according to Maskhadov, has not been in Chechnya for two years and “today represents no one other than himself.” Maskhadov again tried to separate the Chechen independence movement from “terrorism” and “religious extremism,” claiming that the Taliban “has enough of its own problems without us” and that Chechen rebel movement’s goals were something “altogether different” from the Taliban and its ideas (Kommersant, June 15).