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Decision time in Chechnya

The death of Aslan Maskhadov, Chechnya’s rebel President, has handed Russia’s President Putin has a great opportunity to make moves towards a peace deal in Chechnya.  Unfortunately for him, though, the next step is not in his hands but in those of the Chechen military council, which is due to appoint a new leader within days.

Maskhadov made repeated offers to hold talks with Russia, and particularly with President Putin.  Whether these offers were sincere or not – and I believe they were – he was rebuffed on each occasion.  Russia wasn’t prepared to deal with terrorists, came the blunt reply.  But now that he is no longer around, the potential arises for Russia to follow a similar policy to Israel after the death of Yasser Arafat.  Putin can unilaterally declare that whoever replaces Maskhadov is a moderate, and someone that he can do business with.

The problem for Putin right now is that there is no clear idea of who will succeed Maskhadov.  Palestine appointed Abu Mazen, their Arafat replacement, by popular vote, which not only gave him legitimacy in the eyes of the world but gave him enough popular legitimacy among Palestinians to persuade Israel that he could deliver on a peace deal.  Maskhadov’s replacement will be appointed by a Chechen military council, many of whose members are spread around the world, and which does not include Shamil Basayev, the most prominent symbol of Chechen resistance.  How much legitimacy will the Chechen opposition’s new leader possess? 

The council will choose its leader from its own ranks, and here lies one silver lining at least – Basayev’s absence from the council means that he cannot be appointed leader.  This does not mean, though, that he will not have any say in who is appointed.  He is a powerful man, and many of those in the military council will be, although perhaps not taking direct orders from him, paying very close attention to his opinion.  Basayev doesn’t want to do a peace deal with Russia, and he is not likely to be very keen on another moderate leader.   He views a peace deal only as  a pause, to give him and his cause the opportunity to regroup and, once their position is more advantageous, begin the fight anew

Balancing against Basayev’s wishes is the growing recognition among many in the Chechen leadership that the war is not going well for them.  They may well believe that now is the best chance they have to make a deal with Russia in which they get to dictate at least some of the terms.  And they may also feel that it is wiser to cut a deal with Russia now that might isolate Basayev, rather than to spurn peace and bring the wrath of an increasingly brutal pro-Russian Chechen militia down upon themselves.

The idea candidate, of course, would be a relative moderate with impeccable Islamic credentials.  But does one exist?  The danger that the council could appoint either a relatively radical Chechen who has the support of Basayev, but who is too much of a radical for Putin to be able to publicly talk to, or that they will appoint a moderate with little real power on the ground, is a very real one.  Appoint either of these men, and the chance of a lasting peace in Chechnya is virtually nil.

There is not much that outsiders can do to puch for peace in Chechnya. It is the military council whose decision will point the way to Chechnya’s future.  Let’s hope they are able to choose wisely.


  • Unfortunately now that maskhadov is gone, things are likely to go the other way from palestine. If anything the chechen leadership is going to get worse not better, as unlike in palestine maskhadov was probably the most moderate person, not one of the problems.

  • Well, it looks as if the decision has been made and that moderation will continue to be the key. However, is there anybody with the stature to marginalize Basayev, especially now that he is set in disrupting the legitimacy of an alternative to his senseless, murderous mission against the Russian civilian population:

    MOSCOW (AP) — Chechen rebel warlord Shamil Basayev called on his people to recognize a field commander and fundamentalist Islamic judge as their new leader following the killing by Russia of Aslan Maskhadov, according to a message posted Thursday on a rebel Web site.
    Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev is relatively unknown outside rebel circles, leading to speculation that his ascension would leave Basayev — whose radicalism has sometimes put him at odds even with his own militants — effectively in charge of the Chechen rebellion.
    Either way, the appointment would mark a pronounced shift, since Sadulayev is considered to be a fundamentalist, while Maskhadov was considered a relative secularist more inclined to compromise with the Russians in order to end the prolonged conflict.
    There was some mystery surrounding Sadulayev, with claims — denied by rebel figures — describing him as a Saudi national.
    In the message on the Kavkaz-Center Web site, Basayev said that in 2002 Maskhadov and other Chechen leaders had formally agreed that Chechnya’s former Islamic Court chairman, whom he called Sheikh Abdul-Khalim, would succeed Maskhadov.
    “I think that at the present moment he is the person who can unite all the forces in the Chechen republic. He enjoys colossal authority among both armed forces and the civilian population,” Maskhadov’s London-based envoy, Akhmed Zakayev, told The Associated Press, adding that Maskhadov had considered him his closest ally since 2000.
    Maskhadov was killed Tuesday in a special operation by Russian security forces in northern Chechnya. His body was taken out of Chechnya on Thursday for forensic identification, the Interfax news agency reported, citing Deputy Prosecutor General Nikolai Shepel.
    Lines of authority among the Chechen rebels had been murky: Maskhadov enjoyed greater recognition in the West — which he tried to induce to pressure the Kremlin to start talks — while Basayev, officially a subordinate, commanded greater loyalty among the rebels themselves.
    Some analysts said Basayev would now be effectively in control.
    Alexei Malashenko, an Islam expert at the Moscow Carnegie Center, said the rebels had chosen an unknown as an interim leader “so that there would be some one else besides Shamil Basayev.”
    The Internet newspaper Web site, citing Russian special services, said Abdul-Khalim was the head of the rebels’ so-called Shariat committee and a Saudi national, one of five who rose in the rebel movement in 2002 due to an ability to bring foreign funds to Chechnya.
    But Maskhadov’s son Anzor — and other associates of his father gathered in Baku, Azerbaijan on Thursday for a mourning ceremony — denied that, saying Sadulayev was Chechen.
    Khalid Aslan, a 40-year-old Chechen refugee in Baku, said Sadulayev was 38-40 years old, and that his wife had gone missing in 2001 — falling prey to the Russian secret services, he believed.
    An expert on Chechnya and the North Caucasus at Russia’s Academy of Sciences, Sergei Arutyunov, also said Sadulayev was Chechen.
    “He is respected among the truly theological circles. What is rare among Chechen separatists, he is very well educated in terms of religion — and he adheres to fundamentalist views,” Arutyunov said, adding that Maskhadov had agreed to Sadulayev’s succession “to satisfy his opponents in the fundamentalist camp.”
    Although Sadulayev was not a very public figure, he was apparently known to authorities.
    Ekho Moskvy radio said that Russian prosecutors considered him the main organizer of the 2001 kidnapping of American Kenneth Gluck, who worked for Doctors Without Borders in southern Russia. Gluck was freed after 25 days.
    The radio station said Maskhadov had called Sadulayev the co-organizer of a June 2004 raid on police and security installations in the southern Russian republic of Ingushetia, which killed some 90 people.
    It quoted the mainstream Muslim mufti of Chechnya, Akhmat-Hadji Shamayev, as calling Sadulayev Chechnya’s “Wahhabi No. 1” — referring to the Saudi-born, ascetic strain of Islam associated with Osama bin Laden.
    Some predicted a leadership struggle would ensue.
    “Now a fierce and irreconcilable fight for this position (of separatist leader) will break out between so-called Ichkerians (separatist Chechens) who take shelter abroad and those who are still in the mountains,” Interfax quoted Taus Dzhabrailov, chairman of the Chechen State Council, as saying.
    The former group were tied with Maskhadov.
    But Dzhabrailov, too, agreed that “now Basayev is becoming the effective head of the illegal armed units.”
    Maskhadov’s repeated calls for negotiations and the fact that he was Chechnya’s elected president for a brief period of de-facto independence and relative calm — lent him credibility and support among those Chechens tired of the conflict.
    Maskhadov was blamed by the Russians for terrorist acts too — but he usually denied the charges.
    Basayev, meanwhile, has taken part in and claimed credit for some of the deadliest attacks, including the school seizure that left some 330 people dead in Beslan last year and the 2002 seizure of hundreds of hostages at a Moscow theater.
    Many predicted that Maskhadov’s death would lead to only more terror.
    “It is obvious that with Maskhadov’s death all the moderate, civilized elements in the Chechen movement will gradually die out,” Arutyunov said. “The movement will continue, with Basayev de-facto controlling most of it, but not all, and terrorist attacks will continue. But now there would be no condemnation of such attacks — because Maskhadov would condemn them … There will be complete chaos and Sadulayev is unlikely to prevent it.”

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