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Chechnya: Moscow Strikes at Maskhadov

Rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov’s military power has been virtually broken by the loss of his two most powerful commanders, while the Islamic wing grows stronger.
By Timur Aliev

The capture this week of the pro-independence Chechen defence minister Magomed Khambiev, following on from the death of influential commander Khamzat Gelayev, has radically changed the balance of forces within the rebel movement fighting the Russians.


The developments have strengthened the extremist wing of the Chechen rebel movement and badly weakened pro-independence president Aslan Maskhadov, and may have far-reaching consequences for the future of the conflict in Chechnya


Maskhadov, a moderate nationalist who is still resisting the Russians more than four years after the start of the second conflict but rejects terrorist methods, has now lost two of his closest supporters. He must now rely on only two commanders for close backing, Vakha Arsanov and Isa Munayev.


By contrast, the radical Islamist side has four powerful figures in Shamil Basayev, Saudi-born Abu Walid, Dokku Umarov and Abdul-Malik Mezhidov.


Khamzat Gelayev (who used to go by the name Ruslan) was found dead on Chechnya’s border with Dagestan on February 28, apparently after an exchange of fire with two border guards. His death was later confirmed by the rebel side.


Gelayev was well known for his opposition to the Islamists, and was widely considered in Chechnya to be a potential intermediary between Maskhadov and the Russians. Virtually no one is left to fill that role, and Maskhadov is in a difficult position as his standing in Chechnya has fallen and Moscow continues to condemn him aggressively.


Magomed Khambiev gave himself up on March 8. His brother Umar Khambiev, health minister in the pro-independence Chechen government now in exile in the West, told a press conference at the European Parliament in Strasbourg that he had surrendered after federal forces had abducted 17 members of their family.


Umar Khambiev said that “as a brother, I understand the reasons for Magomed’s actions, that he sacrificed himself to save the lives of our relatives who were taken hostage,” but went on to say that “as a member of the government of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, I categorically condemn this act because occupation forces, using this precedent, can from now on subject other members of the Chechen government to terrible blackmail.”


Magomed Khambiev was a close associate of Maskhadov, and even pro-Moscow Chechen leader Akhmad Kadyrov conceded that he was a “fierce opponent of Wahhabism, he did not engage in kidnapping and killing peaceful civilians.” Kadyrov described the arrest as a heavy blow to Maskhadov, who was “up until now trying to present himself as a president who had ministers and in particular a defence minister reporting to him”.


Khalid Yamadayev, a Chechen who was elected to the Russian parliament last year, told Interfax news agency that Maskhadov had made all his contacts with the outside world via his defence minister. “Without Magomed Khambiev he is a complete nothing,” he said.


Chechen political analyst Edilbek Khasmagomadov agreed, calling the detention of Khambiev “a very heavy blow from which he [Maskhadov] can hardly recover. His position has obviously weakened. I think that either the arrest or the death of the [Chechen] president is not far off.”


Nadirsolt Elsunkayev, who headed Maskhadov’s security service in 1996-97 said that the rebel Chechen leader had few remaining military forces.“A few people in Maskhadov’s personal guard and a dozen or more supporters of Arsanov and Munayev do not comprise a significant force,” he said.


Elsunkayev said that a number of Arsanov’s supporters had gone over to the new pro-Moscow administration of Akhmad Kadyrov and were now serving under Movladi Baisarov, a man based in the village of Pobedinskoye outside Grozny, who is accused of involvement in kidnapping and the illegal trade in oil products.


Maskhadov’s other remaining ally, Isa Munayev, has been weakened after he refused to accept financial help from radical Islamists, and had to disband his unit for lack of money.


The radicals by contrast are, if anything, gaining in strength. It is they who are using suicide bombers, a tactic disavowed by the moderates on the grounds that it is against Chechen tradition. Their leader remains the notorious warrior Shamil Basayev, who has claimed responsibility for almost all recent attacks carried out in Russia. He heads a group of would-be martyrs called “Riyadh as-Saliheen” which translates from Arabic as “The Gardens of the Righteous”. Two years ago Basayev said, “We have the right to respond to state terror from Russia with all available methods.”


The radicals also lost a leader last month, but far from the battlefield. Zelimkhan Yandarbiev, a former acting president of Chechnya, was killed by a car-bomb in Qatar. The Qatari authorities are holding two Russians on suspicion of carrying out the blast, but Moscow denies responsibility.


Despite the grand phrases they use, such as “fronts” and “sectors”, each of the Islamist fighters’ units number no more than 50 or 60 men.


However, Gennady Sapozhkov, head of the North Caucasus anti-terrorism department of the Russian intelligence service, the FSB, told IWPR by telephone that, “Their tactics of sabotage and terrorism do not require a large number of fighters, but in case of necessity they can count on increasing their ranks to several hundred men.”


With such influential men as Gelayev and Khambiev removed from the scene, these radical units are now likely to be the ones able to attract young men wishing to fight the Russians out of revenge or hatred.


The anti-Islamist wing of the rebels suffered another blow last week with the killing in Ingushetia of Akhmed Basnukayev. At the age of 23, he was named Chechnya’s “youngest brigadier general” by former president Jokhar Dudayev. He subsequently split from both Maskhkadov and Basayev, accusing them of not standing up to the wave of Islamists coming into Chechnya.


Last autumn he met Kadyrov and a number of Russian officers, but refused to change sides, saying he would see that as treachery.


Observers believe recent events may change the nature of the conflict in Chechnya and make it much more unpredictable. Even if the most important leaders are removed by the Russians, they say, the conflict will not be over – just different.


“The consequence of the liquidation or arrest of Maskhadov, Basayev and other leaders… might be the appearance of terrorist groups who are controlled by no one and are not restrained by any norms of behaviour or rules of conduct,” said Khasmagomadov. “The main thing will be to take revenge by any available means, including terrorist acts on Russian cities modelled on Palestinian suicide attacks.”


Mate Tsikhesasashvili, a former deputy in the pro-independence Chechen parliament, is puzzled by Russia’s apparent tactics. “The strangest aspect of this is that the Russian intelligence services and military are mainly going after and destroying those Chechen commanders who are in favour of civilised warfare, who are enemies not only of Russia but of the radical Islamic movements, and who will not accept foreigners fighting on their side.”


“There can no longer be a peaceful outcome to the armed conflict in Chechnya,” said a pessimistic Tsikhesashvili. “Military action will stop only when all the fighters are either destroyed or legalised.”


Timur Aliev is IWPR’s coordinator for Chechnya. Ruslan Zhadayev is deputy editor of Chechenskoye Obshchestvo newspaper.


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