By Dale Street
Aslan Maskhadov, a long-standing Chechen separatist leader and one-time president of Chechnya, was killed by Russian forces on 8 March in the south-Chechen settlement of Tolstoy-Yurt.
Maskhadov was born in Kazakhstan in 1951. His family had been victims of the mass deportation of the Chechen people carried out by Stalin at the close of the Second World War. Maskhadov’s family survived and was allowed to return to Chechnya in 1957.
Maskhadov became a career soldier in the Soviet army, serving in Hungary, Lithuania, and, according to some of his biographies, Afghanistan. After the break-up of the Soviet Union Maskhadov retired from the Russian army with the rank of colonel and returned to Chechnya in 1992.
He was appointed Chief of Staff for the embryonic Chechen Army and led the Chechen forces during the first Chechen war (1994–96). In August of 1996 he commanded the Chechen forces who re-captured the Chechen capital Grozny. The attack was intended to “show to the whole world, and particularly Russia, the military potential of the separatists.”
Russia sued for peace. In January 1997 Maskhadov won a landslide victory in the Chechen presidential elections, defeating the Chechen field commander Shamil Basayev. The Russian government hailed Maskhadov as a peacemaker and signed a peace agreement with him in May of the same year.
However Maskhadov was unable to consolidate his position.
Basayev created his own network of militias and warlords and ordered assassination attempts on Maskhadov. Nurtured by Basayev, Wahhabism and other Islamic-fundamentalist groups rapidly gained ground. As “law and order” broke down, kidnappings, murders, and warlordism flourished. In 1998, in opposition to his own politics, Maskhadov succumbed to the pressure to introduce sharia law in Chechnya.
An armed incursion by Basayev into the neighbouring republic of Dagestan in 1999 and a wave of bombings in Moscow (which were more likely to have been carried out by the Russian security services than by Chechen separatists) provided the pretexts for a fresh Russian onslaught on Chechnya.
Yesterday’s peacemaker now became a terrorist. Maskhadov’s government was overthrown and replaced by a pro-Moscow administration. Russia offered a reward of 300 million rubles (over ten million dollars) for the capture of Maskhadov and Basayev. Maskhadov retreated to the mountains of southern Chechnya.
The physical and social structures of Chechen society were laid waste by the years of renewed fighting. Villages and entire towns were razed to the ground. The civilian population fell victim to the terrorism of Russian forces and Chechen forces alike, and also to common criminality. A collapse of moral values resulted in atrocities such as the Beslan school killings (carried out under the orders of Basayev, and sharply condemned by Maskhadov).
Putin denounced Maskhadov for having “led Chechnya to economic collapse, hunger, and the total destruction of the spiritual and social sphere.” Accurate as such a description was of Chechnya, the fault for it lay infinitely more with Putin than with Maskhadov.
In January of this year Maskhadov called a unilateral ceasefire in an attempt to persuade the Kremlin to agree to unconditional talks to end the fighting. There was no response from the Russian government to the offer. And then in early March, acting on information provided from captured Chechen fighters, Russian forces raided Tolstoy-Yurt.
To portray Maskhadov simply as the progressive peacemaker who was forced to act under the pressure of events, but who was really only intent only on securing an end to hostilities, is certainly an over-simplification. And yet Maskhadov did represent a less belligerent form of Chechen nationalism than that represented by Basayev. (Arguably, Basayev does not represent Chechen nationalism at all.)
In all likelihood, Maskhadov’s death will strengthen the hand of Basayev and his followers, allowing the Russian authorities to equate Chechen separatists with Islamic-fundamentalist terrorism. And this, in turn, will allow western governments to continue to turn a blind eye to Putin’s war on “terrorism”.