Publication: North Caucasus Weekly Volume: 6 Issue: 24

Chechen rebel president Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev raised his profile somewhat over the past week, naming his vice-president and making several public statements. On June 17, the rebel leadership’s State Defense Committee (GKO) of Ichkeria confirmed field commander Doku Umarov as vice-president. Sadulaev had named Umarov to the post by presidential decree the previous day. Umarov replaces Vakha Arsanov, who was elected to the post of vice-president in Chechnya’s January 1997 presidential election but was removed from the post in 2001 by then rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov for failing to participate in military actions against federal forces. Arsanov was reportedly killed in a security operation in Grozny’s Staropromyslovsky district on May 15 (see Chechnya Weekly, May 18). Kommersant on June 18 quoted the acting chairman of the separatist Ichkerian parliament, Selim Beshaev, as saying that all of the members of the GKO, which includes all of the members of the government along with some parliamentary deputies and field commanders, approved Umarov’s nomination as vice-president. “Umarov is one of the most influential field commanders and, in addition, has good experience in government work, therefore there were no objections against his candidacy,” Beshaev said. He said there were other candidates and that the decision on who to nominate as vice-president had taken three months to reach. Beshaev also said that Shamil Basaev was not among the possible candidates because he “immediately announced that he was not aspiring to state office.”

Meanwhile, the separatist Kavkazcenter website published an interview that Sadulaev gave to the Arabic-language newspaper Al-Aman (which was also published in the Turkish periodical Milli Gazete). Asked whether he hoped to resolve the military conflict “in a peaceful way,” Sadulaev said he did not. “We intend to continue President Maskhadov’s course,” he said. “Like Maskhadov, we think that the war can be stopped only with the help of war. All our attempts to resolve the problem in a peaceful way have ended in an impasse and the intensification of combat operations by the enemy. Today we cannot see peaceful ways of ending the war…The Chechens did not start the war; we were attacked by the Russians…The Russians decided to seize our bit of land. They have occupied it and are plundering our resources. This is why we will keep fighting for as long as required.”

Sadulaev also appeared to reject the idea of accepting autonomy for Chechnya rather than independence. “The Chechen nation has paid 250,000 lives for its independence,” he said. “That is 25 percent of our population. Muslim Chechnya should be an independent state. At the same time, we are open for cooperation with any interested international powers.” Asked what would happen if Putin remained in power “in the future” – presumably meaning past the end of his second term – Sadulaev said that the problems between Russia and Chechnya have a 400-year history and did not start with Putin. “And, most probably, it will not be resolved with Putin’s departure,” he added. Sadulaev dismissed Kadyrov and other pro-Russian Chechen officials as “Russian agents” who have “sold their motherland and faith for privileges and posts.” He also dismissed Russian claims that Chechnya is being rebuilt as “delusions.” “The Russians have been restoring their occupying bases in Chechnya and destroying our motherland purposefully for six years,” he said. “Russia can only bring destitution to Chechnya and nothing more.”

Asked about the extent of Shamil Basaev’s influence, Sadulaev answered: “There are no opposition groups in our ranks. Our armed forces are under a single command, have a single position and single goals. Not a single group or unit is acting on its own initiative or in the opposite direction.” Asked whether this meant that he personally controls all of the rebels’ armed forces, Sadulaev said: “Since President Maskhadov’s martyrdom, God willing, the unity of the mujahideen has become only stronger, and trust among us has become yet more complete.” Sadulaev officially holds not only the post of president, but that of emir of the State Defense Committee – Majlis ul-Shura of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria – that is, commander-in-chief of the separatist armed forces.

In a videotaped Chechen-language appeal to the Chechen people posted by Kavkazcenter website on June 20, part of which the website translated, Sadulaev indicated that the war would not end even if federal forces were expelled from Chechnya. “The perpetrators of numerous evil deeds in our land, land which belongs to the Caucasus Muslims, should be punished severely,” he said. “Neither infidels nor traitors will escape retribution. For many years, the Chechens offered peace to the enemy, but we immediately calmed down once the enemy left our land. That was a mistake. We have no right to make the same mistake again. After the enemy is thrown out, he should be punished. The crimes committed should not go unpunished. We will never let this happen again.”

Sergei Sergievsky suggested in the June 20 edition of Nezavisimaya gazeta that the naming of Doku Umarov as the separatists’ vice-president is a sign that Shamil Basaev, who is very close to Umarov, is the rebel movement’s de facto leader. “A version exists that Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev is to a significant degree a virtual president,” Sergievsky wrote. “And that Shamil Basaev determines the policy and strategy of the separatist forces. According to this version, Basaev did not attempt to become president of Ichkeria himself, because he plans to become president of the anti-Russian resistance in all of the North Caucasus. Chechnya in these plans will be assigned the role of simply being one of the ‘fronts’. If this is so, then Umarov, apparently, is more than powerful enough to head that ‘front’.” Sergievsky also noted that Sadulaev recently gave a sermon in a mosque in Basaev’s native village of Dyshny-Vedeno in Chechnya’s Vedeno district, in which he called on all Muslims to render “all possible contributions to the cause of liberating Chechen land from the Russian occupiers.” According to the pro-separatist website, more than one hundred Chechen fighters were with Sadulaev when he gave the sermon, in which he also warned Chechens working with “occupation structures” that they would be harshly punished if they continued to do so.

Whatever Sadulaev’s relationship with Basaev, it is worth noting that Sadulaev’s stress on military action and his apparent abandonment of the peace initiatives repeatedly stressed by his predecessor, Aslan Maskhadov, puts him closer to Basaev in terms of commitment to armed struggle. Still, it should be noted that Sadulaev has explicitly ruled out targeting civilians (Chechnya Weekly, June 8), unlike Basaev, who has claimed responsibility for last year’s Beslan hostage-taking, bombing outside Moscow’s Rizhskaya metro station and downing of two passenger airliners.