Assassination of the Rebel President Signals Escalation in North Caucasus

by Raven Healing

Aslan Maskhadov, the last legitimate president of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, elected in independent Chechnya in 1997, was killed on March 8, 2005, in a village just outside Grozny, the capital. Russian TV showed pictures of his bloodied body, and the makeshift cellar bunker where he had been hiding, but the circumstances of his death are still unclear. Some accounts claim he was killed by agents of the Russian FSB, the successor to the Soviet KGB. Others maintain he was killed by pro-Russian Chechen forces headed by Ramzan Kadyrov, deputy prime minister of Moscow’s puppet administration. Still others maintain he was accidentally shot by his own body guards, or killed by his own men at his own orders. According to Radio Free Europe and the BBC, it was Russian Special Forces troops who killed Maskhadov–a claim echoed by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The BBC stated: “Maskhadov did more than any other fighter in Chechnya to win the 1994-1996 war against Russia. He also did more than any other negotiator to bring peace.” In 1996, he represented Chechnya in negotiations with Russia’s Gen. Alexander Lebed, culminating in the signing of the Khasavyurt Treaty, which resulted in the withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya. Then, as president, Maskhadov signed a Treaty of Peace with Russian President Boris Yeltsin in 1997 that rejected “forever the use of force or threat in resolving all matters of dispute” between Russia and Chechnya, and called for the two countries to “develop their relations on generally recognized principles and norms of international law.”

Many western sources had painted Maskhadov as the last hope for a peaceful resolution to the war in Chechnya. Some analysts predict that the war will worsen and spread still further into other regions of the North Caucasus. Officially, Maskhadov’s successor is Abdul-Khalim Saydullayev; but it seems likely to many analysts that Saydullayev will be unable to control guerilla leader Shamil Bassayev–and that Bassayev is poised to become the new leader of the divided resistance. Even though Russia viewed Maskhadov and Bassayev as close allies, their connection was complicated and their differences many.

The January 1997 elections of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, overseen and declared fair by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, brought Maskhadov to the presidency by two thirds of the vote. Bassayev came in second with 22% of the vote. In order to unify the people, Maskhadov gave Bassayev a the position of prime minister. But the two men only drifted further apart.

Maskhadov faced numerous uprisings, and even attempts on his life–mostly from Wahhabi fundamentalists who sought to turn Chechnya into an Islamic state. Bassayev publicly joined the Wahhabi movement in 1998. Maskhadov, although a Muslim, had no intention of turning Chechnya into a strict Islamic state.

Another problem for Maskhadov’s presidency was the wave of kidnappings in Chechnya. In one prominent case in 1999, four employees of a British company were abducted and reportedly sold to the highest bidder. The bidder–said to have been Osama bin Laden himself–beheaded the hostages. In another case in 1998, 150 people were killed in a gunfight in Gudermes that began as an argument over “ownership” of some hostages. Maskhadov never attempted to prosecute anyone for the kidnappings. Nor did he ever publicly mention the names of those responsible for the attempts on his life. Committed to the increasingly transparent facade of unified Chechen people, he refused to crack down on the Wahhabi uprisings. At one point, Makhadov attempted to appease the Wahhabis by asking all female employees of the state to cover their hair. To say the least, this was not enough for Bassayev and the Wahhabi militants.

In 1999, after Bassayev launched guerilla raids into the neighboring Russian republic of Dagestan, Maskhadov was forced to finally condemn Bassayev by name–but still he did not move to arrest or prosecute him. Maskhadov’s unwillingness or inability to crack down is partly to blame for how Chechnya spiraled out of control. The raid into Dagestan, combined with a series of apartment bombings blamed on Chechens, prompted Russia to invade Chechnya–a replay of the 1994 invasion which had left much of Grozny in ruins. But while Russia had pulled out in 1996–allowing Chechnya to regain the independence declared in 1991–this time the hardline President Putin was determined to maintain control.

Russia removed Maskhadov’s government, and put in place a pro-Russian puppet regime. In response to the invasion, Bassayev and Maskhadov made peace and decided to work together against the Russian occupation. However, Bassayev has claimed responsibility for numerous incursions and hostage takings on Russian soil that Maskhadov condemned. Bassayev’s men took hostages at maternity wards, opera houses and, most recently, a school full of children in Beslan, North Ossetia, which ended in a bloody massacre last September.

Maskhadov did claim credit for organizing the 2004 summer Chechen guerilla raid into Ingushetiya. Bassayev also apparently participated, but the methods of the raid were the trademarks of Maskhadov. Unlike Bassayev’s actions, this raid was well-organized and did not target civilians. Chechens successfully seized weapons from police stations in Ingushetiya–then retreated into Chechnya, leaving low rebel casualties, high casualties among Russian forces, and Ingush police blamed for reprisals against Chechen refugees.

The most recent raid on Russian soil was Bassayev’s attack in Beslan. The deaths of hundreds of children hostages was so terrible that Maskhadov condemned the hostage-takers as “madmen” who had lost their senses due to the brutality of the war in Chechnya. Bassayev claimed responsibility for the hostage-taking, but blamed the deaths on Russian troops, saying he never expected they would shoot children. He also stated that when the war in Chechnya ends, he would stand trial for Beslan.

However, Russia did not recognize the divide between Maskhadov and Bassayev, and instead put a bounty on both of their heads for $10 million. Makhadov consistently condemned the killing of civilians, but still would not attempt to arrest Bassayev.

In early 2005, Maskhadov organized a cease-fire within Chechnya, calling for peace talks with Russia. Putin refused to meet with Maskhadov. Less than a month later, Maskhadov was dead. Some analysts think Moscow targeted Maskhadov because he was one Chechen rebel who had some legitimacy–his presidency was once internationally recognized–and he could not be written off easily as a religious fanatic. Some observers suggest that Maskhadov was secretly offered peace talks, and in this way his location was determined in order to kill him. This could not be confirmed.

What can be assumed is that even those Wahhabis who hated Maskhadov will now praise him as a martyr, and use his death as a rallying call to fight Russia. Without Maskhadov’s constant attempts to restrain attacks against Russian civilians, there are concerns that the violence will spread throughout the North Caucasus, and that more Russian civilians will be targeted. Bassayev has made it clear that he has little interest in peaceful coexistence with Russia, and he would never take part in peace talks with Putin.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Getting Chechnya under control is strategic for Moscow, as any potential Russian route for a pipeline to carry Caspian oil to global markets would have to cross the North Caucasus. The Soviet-era pipeline leading north from Azerbaijan’s oil port of Baku passed through Chechnya, and was effectively destroyed by guerillas in the resumed war of 1999. The new “Chechen By-Pass” pipeline Russia is now building passes through Dagestan–which Bassayev’s forces have repeatedly tried to destabilize. So the stakes are high, and brutality is escalating in Chechnya, even as Putin claims recent gains for “security.” Maskhadov’s death comes just as Human Rights Watch has released a new report decrying that up to 5,000 people have “disappeared” in Chechnya since 1999–overwhelmingly at the hands of Russian security forces and their collaborationist Chechen proxies, who operate with impunity. Maskhadov’s passing makes any prospect for de-escalation more remote than ever.–WW4 REPORT


Chechnya: “Disappearances” a Crime Against Humanity, Human Rights Watch, March 2005

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Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, April 10, 2005 Reprinting permissible with attribution