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RIA Novosti

MOSCOW (RIA Novosti political commentator Vladimir Simonov) - On March 8, International Women's Day, President Vladimir Putin received a surprise gift when he was giving presents to Russian women who had fought in World War II. Aslan Maskhadov, the ex-president of Ichkeria and the leader of Chechen separatists, was killed in a cement bunker 2 meters underground in the settlement of Tolstoi-Yurt.

Mr. Putin listened to the news without blinking, though he has reasons to be satisfied. In 1999, he set the goal of eliminating Chechen terrorist leaders and has attained much in the six years since then.

Dzhokhar Dudayev was killed in April 1996 by a precision missile targeted on his satellite phone. In March 2000, Salman Raduyev, who masterminded hostage takings in Pervomaiskoye and Kizlyar, was arrested and later died in a prison hospital. In June 2001, Arbi Barayev and 17 of his accomplices were killed. In March 2002, Jordanian mercenary Khattab, who was above Shamil Basayev in the hierarchy of Chechen fighters, was killed. In February 2004, Ruslan Gelayev and his gang were killed on the border with Georgia.

The turn of Aslan Maskhadov, a much bigger and more complicated figure in the Chechen terrorist underground, came on March 8. His talent as political chameleon had deceived many Western sponsors for a long time, as they viewed him as a representative of the "moderate faction" of Chechen separatism and hence a more suitable partner for peace talks with the Russian president.

The sponsors did not know the life story of their protege. Mr. Maskhadov discredited himself as a reasonable politician immediately after his election to the post of president in 1997. Shariah courts quickly replaced the republic's laws. Maskhadov, fearing to pit himself against Islamic radicals, pandered to the revival of modernized ancient traditions in Chechnya. People were flogged and executed in the square in front of the presidential palace. It was presented as independence.

It is not known what came first - a lack of will or a reliance on terrorism, but Maskhadov approved the attack on Dagestan when he was president of Chechnya. We also remember the 2002 videotape where Maskhadov, by that time on the federal and international wanted lists, predicted "a unique operation" there, as he put it. Barely a few days later, the hostage taking during the Nord-Ost musical at a Moscow theatre shocked Russia. The female suicide terrorists who took part in the attack were trained in special centers, whose creation Maskhadov viewed as one of his key missions.

And lastly, Maskhadov was involved in the Beslan tragedy, where more than 300 people, half of them children, died. The only surviving terrorist said Mr. Maskhadov was one of the two organizers of that massacre: "We were ordered to seize a school in Beslan. The task was set by Maskhadov and Basayev," he said.

Today foreign advocates of Maskhadov, from political scientist Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter's national security adviser, to Polish Foreign Minister Adam Rotfeld, are pining over the demise of their protege, which they describe as a big political mistake. Their arguments are not new. They claim that Maskhadov was the only moderate partner for talks and that his death made him a symbol of the Chechen resistance. Maskhadov's envoy, Akhmed Zakayev, who is living in London, predicts that Chechen fighters will step up their efforts because Maskhadov allegedly was "a deterring factor."

In point of fact, Maskhadov had not exercised any great influence on the fighters in the past few months, but had become completely isolated from them. He could not control warlords or inspire them to commit new terrorist attacks. It was awareness of his isolation that encouraged the separatist leader to take a grenade-launcher and go to Tolstoi-Yurt, where he planned a major attack on the administration building, the Interior Ministry department and the military commandant's office. The political emigre was eager to join the field army, but the $10 million put on his head by the Kremlin proved stronger than loyalty to the nominal leader.

However, Maskhadov was crucial to the search for Western sponsors. He was the main cashier and financial controller, and his death could end this vital source of financing to Chechen terrorism and leave the Chechen underground in a state of disorganization.

On the whole, the political situation in Chechnya will be cleansed of ambiguity and the illusion of possible talks with the terrorist Satan, which Maskhadov did his best to maintain. Gennady Gudkov, who sits on the State Duma security committee, believes Chechnya will become "more black-and-white." The federal and Chechen authorities will fight against isolated terrorist groups whose only alternative will be to surrender.

It has become clear to them that the death of Aslan Maskhadov signifies the inevitability of punishment for each of them. Shamil Basayev is next on the list; his days - probably weeks or months - are numbered. Inspired by the results of its tough strategy, the Kremlin will maintain a military presence in Chechnya and continue its policy of increasing the intensity of military operations. Moscow's priorities are to transfer the law enforcement functions to the loyal Chechen regime supported by the people, to strengthen it, and to grant it more powers in the economic reconstruction of the region.

It is rumored that Maskhadov's body will not be turned over to his relatives but buried in an unmarked grave, as was done with Raduyev and Gelayev. It is a pity, because there is a good epitaph: "A giant step to peace in the Caucasus was made here."

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