Chechnya: Was Maskhadov A Terrorist Or A Legitimate Leader?
By Valentinas Mite
Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov's death at the hands of Russian special forces yesterday has highlighted the dispute that has long raged over his role in the war-ravaged republic. Who was Maskhadov? The international terrorist that Moscow has branded him, or a legitimate leader of the Chechen people? The answer depends on whom you ask.
Prague, 9 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Reactions to Maskhadov's death reflect the controversy surrounding his place in Chechnya's recent history.
For many Chechens, like Maskhadov's envoy in London, Akhmed Zakaev, the man killed by Russian troops was their president.
"I can already confirm at this hour that the president of the Chechen Republic-Ichkeria, Aslan Maskhadov, has died. I will refrain from commenting on the details that preceded these events, but I can confirm the very fact of Maskhadov's death," Zakaev said.
For the Kremlin and many political leaders in Moscow, on the other hand, Maskhadov was simply a dangerous terrorist whose death should be welcomed. Russian Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov said today that "The destruction of an internationally known terrorist should be seen by everyone in the same way. With this result, there will be a lot less evil."
Maskhadov's biography is that of a soldier turned politician. It has been said of him that he was a good soldier but a deplorable politician.
Aslan Maskhadov was born in 1951 in Kazakhstan, where Soviet leader Josef Stalin had deported all ethnic Chechens near the end of World War II. As a young man, he studied at the Leningrad Artillery Academy and later became a colonel in the Soviet Army. He witnessed the rebirth of independence in the Baltics while serving in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius in the early 1990s. Returning to Chechnya after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Maskhadov struck a close association with Chechnya's first President Djokhar Dudaev.
As a commander in the Chechen army, Maskhadov contributed to the guerrilla campaign's considerable success against Russian troops in the first Chechen war of 1994-1996.
He inherited a more senior role in Chechnya with the death of President Dudaev at the hands of Russian forces in 1996.
The following year, Maskhadov was elected president of Chechnya in what has generally been regarded as a free democratic vote. He subsequently signed a peace deal with Russia.
RFE/RL correspondent Andrei Babitsky has reported extensively on the war in Chechnya. He says 1997-1999 provided a window of opportunity for Maskhadov. But he adds that Maskhadov squandered that chance and, as a politician, is partly responsible for the second war, which continues to this day.
"As a politician, he was extremely weak, extremely distrustful, very dependent on the intrigues of people surrounding him. He was the man who was not able to radically change the situation in the period between the two wars [with Russia] and, to tell the truth, [he] allowed the republic to fall into the hands of criminal bands and religious fanatics," Babitsky said.
In the summer of 1999, radical Chechen warlord Shamil Basaev invaded neighboring Daghestan, and the Kremlin launched its second major offensive in Chechnya.
Babitsky says that despite Maskhadov's mistakes, in the eyes of many Chechens he continued to be their president until his death yesterday.
"He was removed from power by force [by Russian troops]. That's why his legal powers until his very death were not interrupted, although I think the extent of his legitimacy is questionable," Babitsky said.
Babitsky argues that it is wrong to brand Maskhadov, a man he describes as a moderate, a terrorist. He says the Kremlin has no evidence to support such a claim.
"There is no serious evidence that Maskhadov participated in planning terrorist acts. There is no evidence that Maskhadov is the same kind of man as [Shamil] Basaev. The federal center gave no evidence supporting these claims that Maskhadov was a terrorist," Babitsky said.
Maskhadov on many occasions condemned terrorism, and he urged trials for those allegedly responsible for terrorist acts.
Babitsky also describes Maskhadov as a pro-Western politician who sought to use the language of peace and negotiation -- words that Western politicians understand.
In early March, Maskhadov responding to written questions posed by RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service, saying the conflict could be settled quickly through talks between Chechen leaders and the Kremlin.
"We have been suggesting that a 30-minute, fair, face-to-face dialogue should be enough to stop this war, to explain to the president of the Russian Federation what the Chechen people really want -- I'm sure he doesn't even know that -- and also to hear from [Vladimir] Putin personally what he wants, what Russia wants in Chechnya."
The Kremlin publicly ignored the statement, and the initiative failed -- as others have in the republic's recent and bloody history.
The question now is whether the assassination of Maskhadov should be viewed as a Kremlin victory -- if, as some believe, it marked the death of the only influential resistance leader in Chechnya who was prepared to talk about peace.
Copyright (c) 2005. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
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