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Obituary: Aslan Maskhadov
Aslan Maskhadov, who was killed on March 8 in Chechnya, was a tragic figure whose dreams of leading his republic crumbled in part due to his own failures as a politician and in part because of the appalling problems that overwhelmed Chechnya over the last decade.
Maskhadov was neither a great Chechen nationalist leader nor a “terrorist” as the Russians claimed, but a modest man who, if history had been different, might have ended up as a Russian army general.
He was a man of contradictions. Educated in the Soviet army, he was in many ways as Russian as he was Chechen. Although a professional warrior, he tried to be a politician. Marginalised by the second war in Chechnya that began in 1999, he tried to appeal both to western and Islamic audiences to support what he saw as his resistance struggle.
Like most Chechens of his generation, Maskhadov was born in exile in 1951 in Kazakstan, where his people had been deported en masse by Stalin. Unlike most of his compatriots, he was able, after the Chechens had been allowed to return home in the late Fifties, to make a career within the Soviet system.
Maskhadov became an artillery officer and served all over Russia and Eastern Europe. He served in Vilnius in January 1991, when Lithuanian civilians were killed by the Soviet army - an episode which he later said filled him with shame.
In many ways, his values were those of a 19th century Tsarist officer, combined with romanticised Caucasian concepts of chivalry. Not for nothing was his autobiography entitled “Honour is Dearer Than Life.”
Observing the Russian army from within, Maskhadov came to see its growing weakness and corruption, and sought to instil discipline and respect both in his Soviet-era subordinates and then in the fledgling army he tried to create in Chechnya, after it declared unilateral independence from Russia in 1991.
When Russian federal troops invaded Chechnya in December 1994 to crush the regime of rebel president Jokhar Dudayev, Maskhadov took it upon himself to turn a diverse group of partisan fighters into something like a regular army. His success in doing that helped the Chechen fighters inflict a humiliating defeat on the Russian army in 1996.
Yet Maskhadov also had a traditional distaste for war, typical of many military men. In an interview in the village of Goity in February 1994, as fighting raged around him, he could barely disguise his irritation with Dudayev and his fiery polemics, and talked instead of the need for a truce.
By contrast, Maskhadov found it easy to find a common language with the more reasonable among his Russian counterparts. It was his ability to talk to them that thrust him more and more into the limelight, as he was able to negotiate ceasefires and start peace talks in 1995. With one general, Anatoly Romanov, he developed such a close relationship that the two were almost friends. Romanov was then blown up in unexplained circumstances and gravely injured.
In 1996 the tactic of combined military and political pressure paid dividends and when Dudayev was assassinated in April of that year, Maskhadov began to emerge as his natural successor. Talking in a beech wood in southern Chechnya after Dudayev’s death, the generally soft-spoken Maskhadov was suddenly brimming with confidence – he had just received news that he had been invited to talks with President Boris Yeltsin and would soon exchange the forest for the halls of the Kremlin.
The years 1996-97 were the high point for Maskhadov. In January 1997, he was elected president in a vote that was monitored by international observers and recognised by both Russia and the international community. In an emphatic pledge of support, more than 300,000 Chechens voted for him.
Then in May of that year, he met Yeltsin again in the Kremlin and signed a landmark treaty with Moscow, which was deliberately ambiguous about the status of Chechnya but promised cooperation and an end to violence.
But everything had already begun to unravel. The radical commanders who had defeated the Russians were now dividing up the spoils of Chechnya. Criminality and kidnapping were rampant. Radical Islamists began to win new recruits. Ayman al-Zawahiri, a leading Islamic militant who later became second-in-command of al-Qaeda, tried to travel to Chechnya.
One of Maskhadov’s main strengths – his flexibility and pragmatism – proved to be one of his weaknesses.
He tried to accommodate all interests in Chechnya, including those of the radical Islamists, while failing to reach out to the popular constituency that had brought him to power. Chechnya descended into anarchy. Having initially committed himself to a secular Chechnya, he half-heartedly declared the rule of shariah, Islamic law.
On a series of foreign trips, including to London and Washington, Maskhadov met with sympathy but could not articulate a clear message or give good arguments as to how Chechnya could be given support.
As Vladimir Putin rose to power and Russian troops re-invaded Chechnya in 1999, Maskhadov pleaded in vain for negotiations. It was a plea he repeated only last month after Moscow ignored a ceasefire he had announced.
Maskhadov and his envoys abroad condemned the theatre siege in Moscow in 2002 and last year’s seizure of the school in Beslan, but these acts tainted him in the eyes of many, proving at the very least that he was unable to rein in the more radical actions of his long-term rival Shamil Basayev. His failure completely to disassociate himself from Basayev made it easy for the Russian government to accuse him of complicity in such extremism.
Mairbek Vachagayev, who worked as Maskhadov’s spokesman for several years and is now in exile in Paris, said by telephone that he feared Maskhadov’s death would radicalise the Chechen rebel movement.
“Although he was a mild, cultured man he was able to restrain people, Maskhadov persuaded them not to go out and commit acts of terror,” said Vachagayev. “Now instead of one Shamil [Basayev] we will have ten - and instead of one Beslan we will have ten.
“Maskhadov’s mistake was that he was sincere; his weakness that he was too honest. He sincerely believed that if he only he could meet Putin, the problem of Chechnya could be resolved.”
No one disputes that Maskhadov was a unique figure and there is no one who can replace him as political leader of the Chechen resistance movement.
Both Chechens and Russians have lost a figure of substance who was a known quantity. His passing pushes the Chechen conflict deeper into the shadows.
Thomas de Waal is IWPR’s Caucasus Editor in London.
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