Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Chechnya Shocked by Maskhadov Killing

The republic is tense after the killing of the rebel president.

The centre of Tolstoy-Yurt, a village 40 miles from the Chechen capital Grozny, was quiet, and on a normal day it would have been easy to miss one small whitewashed house with traditional green gates.

The house differed from nearby buildings only by having a deep basement, said neighbours – and now because on March 8 the body of rebel Chechen president Aslan Maskhadov was discovered there.

Ilya Shabalkin, spokesman for Russian federal forces in the North Caucasus, broke the news that day, although he did not give any details of how the Chechen leader had died.

Shabalkin said only that three accomplices had been hiding with Maskhadov in an underground bunker under one of the houses in Tolstoy-Yurt.

Villagers here claim that a “clean-up” operation began on the morning of March 8, with Russian federal forces making house-to-house searches and checking identity papers. The centre of the village was sealed by armoured vehicles and helicopters circled overhead.

“Around 9 am we heard the first explosion, then there was a whole series of [them],” said Salman, a 32-year-old local resident. “We didn’t understand what had happened and no one let us through the cordon. We only heard on television that Maskhadov had been killed.”

The locals said they were completely shocked by the news. “The resident of the house was a welder and his wife was a bus conductor,” said Salman. “A very ordinary family, nothing remarkable about them.”

No one doubts that the killing of the Chechen rebel leader is a hugely significant event for Russia and Chechnya. While Moscow has been celebrating the death of a man they regarded as a dangerous foe, in Chechnya different stories are already circulating about the death of Maskhadov.

Ramzan Kadyrov, the first deputy prime minister of the pro-Moscow government in Grozny and son of the late pro-Moscow leader Akhmad Kadyrov, said Maskhadov had died after one of his bodyguards accidentally fired his gun. The intention had been to capture Maskhadov alive, he said.

Chechnya’s interior minister Ruslan Alkhkanov said that the operation had been planned by the FSB intelligence service. “It was a unique operation of great sophistication,” Alkhanov said.

But many Chechens doubt that Maskhadov was killed in Tolstoy-Yurt. “The village is in the plains of Chechnya,” pointed out analyst and journalist Ruslan Zhadayev. “There are no big forests, mountain gorges where you can hide or escape pursuit.”

The contrary theory is that Maskhadov was killed several days ago in the Nozhai-Yurt region of southern Chechnya by the so-called Kadyrovtsy, the armed men loyal to Ramzan Kadyrov.

“Either he shot himself when he realised he was going to be captured, or he was killed by the Kadyrovtsy,” said Zhadayev. “The decision was taken to give the ‘glory’ of the liquidation of the separatist leader to the special services of Chechnya probably so they would escape blood revenge.”

But Shahman Akbulatov, who heads the Ingushetia office of the Russian human rights organisation Memorial, believes that the rebel leader was betrayed by one of his entourage and tracked down by the intelligence services.

The death of Maskhadov brings to an end his long efforts to be Chechnya’s national leader.

Maskhadov successfully led the armed resistance against the Russian army in 1994-96. Though a military figure, he gained the reputation of being a moderate political figure whom the Russians could do business with and was elected president of Chechnya in January 1997. He then signed a comprehensive peace treaty with President Boris Yeltsin in the Kremlin in May of that year. (For a full obituary see next story).

However, Chechnya slid into anarchy under his rule and Russia launched another military intervention in 1999. Since then, Moscow has rebuffed Maskhadov’s calls for negotiations, which were repeated as recently as last week. The Kremlin accused him of complicity in the seizure of a Moscow theatre in October 2002 and the hostage-taking at the school in Beslan last year - a charge which Maskhadov and his envoys strongly denied.

The death of the former president has now provoked a storm of emotions amongst Chechens and is being discussed all over the region. Many people said they felt sorry for the former president and were depressed by his death.

“I’m sorry on a human level for Maskhadov,” said Satsita Bisayeva, a 21-year-old student at Grozny’s oil institute. “He wasn’t the best president and no doubt he is guilty for much that has happened in the republic, but there are people like Basayev who deserved that fate a lot more than he did.”

She was referring to the militant commander Shamil Basayev, who claimed responsibility for the Beslan attack and now remains the most prominent living leader amongst the Chechen rebels.

“[I am] angry at how the media is covering this,” said Bisayeva. “It was simply blasphemous for Ramzan Kadyrov to call it ‘a present for Chechen women’ [on International Women’s Day].”

Now many Chechens fear that Maskhadov’s death will trigger an escalation of violence amongst remaining fighters.

“Maskhadov was a political loss more than a military one,” said Adlan Sagaipov, editor of the regional newspaper Zov Zemli. “And whenever a Chechen dies it saddens me.

“But now there will be disputes among the fighters over who is to be Maskhadov’s heir. And these fights may have repercussions for the civilian population. Up until now, Maskhadov has restrained Basayev, and it’s not certain what will happen now.”

Formally the choice of successor falls to the rebels’ so-called State Defence Council although no one knows what status this body actually has. What seems almost certain is that the man it nominates will be a military man, not a politician.

“The leadership of the fighters will pass to a more radical man – to Basayev,” said Ali Akayev, a 38-year-old Grozny resident. “His long-cherished dream is coming true.”

Politicial analyst Murad Magomadov agrees, saying that, “If up until now Maskhadov’s initiatives were a certain restraining factor on Basayev, then now the radical fighters of whom Basayev is leader will have complete freedom. What that means has been illustrated by the Nord Ost theatre siege and Beslan.”

Magomadov suggested that if Basayev or another radical fighter Doku Umarov became the new rebel leader, it would herald a radicalisation of tactics in Chechnya.

For many, this was an occasion to reflect on the tragic history of Chechnya over the last decade and Maskhadov’s role in it.

Idris Amayev, a 32-year-old unemployed man in Grozny said, “Maskhadov was a man whom no one hated. Of course he is responsible for what happened in Chechnya, but only as much as anyone else is.

“When everyone elected him in 1997, they swore loyalty to him and said they would support him. But people did not keep their promises, and Maskhadov can’t be blamed for that.”

Timur Aliev is IWPR’s Chechnya coordinator in Nazran.