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The Assassination of Aslan Maskhadov

The leader of the Chechnyan rebels, Aslan Maskhadov, was killed on March 8, 2005 during an anti-terrorist action conducted by the Russian Special Forces. This event is viewed by the Russian side as one of their major successes in the ongoing conflict in the Northern Caucasus. Maskhadov died in a bunker underneath a house, in the small Chechnyan village of Tolstoy-Yurt.

From a symbolic perspective, Maskhadov’s death resembles the capture of Saddam Hussein by the American forces in Iraq. However, many analysts hold the opinion that his death will not have a profound affect on the overall scheme of events in Chechnya.

Aslan Maskhadov possessed two important aspects that separated him from the other Chechnyan separatist leaders who became famous during the first and the second Chechnyan wars. Firstly, he served as a high-ranking career military officer in the Soviet army. Secondly, Maskhadov was a realistic individual whose political involvement was not rooted in the radical nationalist and religious ideas that were popular in the ex-USSR republics in the beginning of 1990’s. On the contrary, his actions were fueled by his own will to establish a strong and independent Chechnyan republic.

Maskhadov was always inclined to solve all the political and military issues with Russia in a “calm and realistic” manner. He did not support the “all-out” war approach that some of the other separatist leaders adopted. During the years of the president Jokhar Dudayev, Maskhadov was a commander in the Chechnyan military forces. He became known in Russia in January 1995, when he headed the Chechnyan rebels in their defense of Groznyy. Later, Maskhadov took charge of all the Chechnyan military. In this position, Maskhadov did not only plan and execute military operations. He tried to find a political solution to the armed conflict, which he considered futile. Thus, Maskhadov quickly became the leader of the “moderate” forces in the republic. His willingness to make compromises with Moscow led Maskhadov to engage in conflicts with Dudayev as well as other Chechen leaders throughout his involvement in the separatist movement.

Over the course of the first Chechnyan campaign (1995), Maskhadov claimed no connection with such terrorist acts as the hospital hostage situation in Budenovsk (executed by Shamil Basayev), the raid on the town of Kizlyar (executed by Raduyev), or the attempt to assassinate the Russian general Anatoly Romanov. However, Maskhadov could not contradict the influence of Dudayev and other leaders. Eventually, he had to accept the fact that the Chechnyan conflict evolved from a military action for national liberation into a diversionary war that employs tactics of terrorism. It was not long before Maskhadov was claiming responsibility for terrorist attacks in Russia, giving his men orders to shoot Russian prisoners, and initiating the “action of vengeance” in Groznyy in 1996.

When president Dudayev was killed, Moscow initiated negotiations with Maskhadov. As a result of the Hassan-Yurt agreements that followed, Chechnya received substantial sovereignty. The war was over, and Chechnyans were faced with the task of rebuilding their ruined homes and reconstructing the damaged political infrastructure. In 1997, Maskhadov was elected president of the independent republic of Ichkeriya. This fact is probably the best example of the extent to which Chechnyan people were tired of the war. His election showed the intensity of the hopes and expectations that were laid upon “the man who made peace with Moscow”.

In spite of his military leadership skills, Maskhadov turned out to be a lousy politician. The conflicting interests of different separatist group leaders, such as Shamil Basayev and Salman Raduyev, overwhelmed him. After achieving his main goal – peace for his own people – he was not willing to engage in internal political conflicts, as he previously did with Dudayev. As a result, Ichkeriya was swept by a wave of crime and anarchy: public shootings, kidnappings, and slave trade became norms of everyday life. The social net and the centralized economic system were completely ruined. Political power was decided by the politician’s proximity to the primary source of finance, which kept flowing from the Russian budget between the years 1996 – 1999.

Maskhadov was not able to stop Chechnya’s descent into chaos. One could say that one of the critical moments of Maskhadov’s presidency was his conflict with Ahmad Kadirov, who was Chechnya’s head Mufti and later became Moscow’s envoy in Chechnya. Kadirov, who was not pleased with the extremist religious influence that foreign Arab interest groups had on Chechnyan people, assembled a group of opposers to Wahhabism. At a certain point, Maskhadov had to make the choice between Kadirov and the notorious Basayev. The latter planned a raid on Dagestan with the purpose of spreading the Wahhabi ideology to a wider region. Maskhadov preferred the military power under Basayev’s command to the Mufti who supported Russian policies.

In October 1999, Maskhadov achieved Kadyrov’s dismissal from the position of Mufti and even issued a death warrant for him. Kadyrov, on the other hand, pursued the support of Russian federal forces in his struggle with Maskhadov.

The second Chechnyan war proved to be far less successful for Aslan Maskhadov. The unity, which prevailed within the separatist command during the first war, was long gone. Although Maskhadov continued to call himself the leader of Chechnyan resistance, he only controlled parts of the rebel army. The Russian forces defeated most of the regular Chechnyan military already in spring of 2000. However, Maskhadov system of “national defense”, which is based on regional guerilla warfare, continues to operate to this day. According to Russian experts, Maskhadov’s system is what makes Chechnyan resistance so hard to suppress.

Maskhadov was forced into constant hiding while hoping that Moscow will eventually realize the ineffectiveness of fighting against guerilla cells and negotiate an agreement. This is why Maskhadov constantly insisted on the uselessness of armed conflict, threatened to increase the number of victims (including innocent civilians) and used his emissary in Europe, Ahmed Zakayev, as well as other representatives to initiate negotiations with Russia. Due to him being the elected president of Ichkerya, international mediators and Russian human rights groups viewed Maskhadov as the primary legitimate figure for such negotiations.

However, both Maskhadov and his supporters were wrong. The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, was clear about his intention to spare no human or material resources for achieving complete victory in Chechnya. Moscow’s policy of assassinating key separatist leaders (Salman Raduyev, Hattab, Abu Al Walid, Ruslan Gelayev and Zelichman Yandarbiyev among others) erased the myth that Chechen rebels are invincible. In order to keep receiving funds from the Arab extremists, Maskhadov associated himself with many terrorist acts executed in Russia in 2004.

According to some observers, Maskhadov’s assassination could have serious ramifications for the destabilization of the Chechnyan conflict. His death unties the hands of many extremist separatists on the Chechnyan side, as well as some radical politicians in Moscow. The main problem is that Shamil Basayev, who took responsibility for the Beslan and Dubrovka terrorist acts, remains the only leader of the Chechen rebels.

Some observes hold the opinion that Maskhadov’s assassination benefits Moscow’s hard-line policy in the region. Thus, by removing the last “legitimate” figure in Chechnyan politics, Russia could gain more international support to deal with the remaining (clearly terrorist) separatist leaders.