Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov escaped with minor wounds when an assassin’s bomb destroyed his car, killing one bodyguard and critically wounding another. In neighboring Dagestan, Said Amirov, mayor of the capital city of Makhachkala, survived an eighth attempt on his life, this one an attack on his office with grenade launchers. Russia’s provinces in the northern Caucasus are slipping into anarchy and may be close to civil war.

War there is nothing new. For twenty-one months in 1994-1996, Russia fought to subdue a rebellion in Chechnya, a Moslem, ethnic republic that has never been reconciled to its subjugation by Russia over 150 years ago. The war in Chechnya left perhaps 35,000 Chechens dead, mostly civilians, and several thousand Russians, mostly soldiers. The war exposed the Russian army as inept and corrupt in its leadership, and incompetent and brutal in its performance. The political repercussions of that disaster continue to echo throughout Russia.

The war ended with both sides exhausted, the Russians defeated but the Chechens not quite victorious. Under the peace agreement, the question of who is sovereign was put off to 2001.

Russian authority in Chechnya is essentially nil, but President Maskhadov’s authority is uncertain. Moscow now sees Maskhadov the rebel as a moderating force, seeking a peaceful evolution of the relationship with Russia. Other Chechen commanders in the war with Russia, notably Salman Raduev, are more militant in their demands for an independent, Islamic state in the Caucasus, including not only Chechnya but the neighboring region of Dagestan.

The rising power of Raduev led President Maskhadov to order his arrest. Maskhadov also formally disbanded — but has been unable to disarm — the radical Shariah Guards and Special Islamic Battalion. Increasingly isolated, Maskhadov reached out to the radicals. He has entrusted command of the official armed forces to his political rival, Shamil Basaev. Basaev is a popular war hero who led a famous 1995 hostage-taking raid that captured a Russian hospital in Budennovsk. He is wanted in Russia as a terrorist. He is chairman of the Congress of the Peoples of Dagestan and Chechnya, the leading political organization working for the union and independence of the two Caucasian republics. Hardly a friend of Moscow — yet Basaev’s willingness to serve President Maskhadov now may be all that preserves a chance to avoid new wars in the region. Russia’s chief negotiator with Chechnya, former national security advisor Ivan Rybkin, warns that if Maskhadov should be removed from the scene, the consequences could be “catastrophic”: new wars in the Caucasus and violence that could spill over into Russia proper.