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.