The killing of the Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov is an indication that the Kremlin does not like to be pressured into peace talks with the separatists.
THE killing of the Chechen rebel leader, Aslan Maskhadov, by Russian Special Forces in the second week of March, is seen as a symbolic victory for the Kremlin in the fight against the separatist forces in Chechnya. Maskhadov, who carried a $10 million reward on his head, was killed in a village near the Chechen capital of Grozny. President Vladimir Putin appeared on state television to confirm the news about the "international terrorist and bandit ringleader" but cautioned the Russian people to remain vigilant. He said a lot of work still needed to be done "to protect the people of the republic and citizens of Russia from the bandits".
Maskhadov is the third prominent Chechen separatist leader to be killed. The first "President" of the Chechen Republic, Dzokhar Dudayev was killed in 1996, when he was talking on a satellite telephone. His successor, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, died last year in a car bomb explosion in Qatar. The Qatar government blamed the Russian secret service for the assassination. Maskhadov was apparently attacked and killed in his underground bunker.
The Chechen rebels have been keeping the Russian military on tenterhooks for many years now. President Putin's popularity was initially boosted by the strong measures he initiated against the separatists. However, in the last couple of years, the Chechen rebels have shown on several occasions their ruthlessness and ability to strike beyond the borders of their tiny state. The terrorist attack on a Moscow theatre in 2002, in which 129 people died, and last year's hostage-taking in Southern Russia, which led to the death of more than 330 people, half of them children, are bloody illustrations.
Maskhadov was thought to be a comparatively moderate face of the secessionist movement. In communications sent to Western capitals, he repeatedly denied any connection with the terrorist attacks of 2002 and 2004 and criticised the tactics of warlords such as Shamil Basayev. Moscow had at one time formally dealt with Maskhadov. He was, after all, elected President of Chechnya in an internationally recognised election, held in 1997 following an agreement with the Russian government. Former Russian President Boris Yeltsin gave the Chechen rebels under Maskhadov's leadership a free hand in running the territory after the Khasavyurt peace deal in 1996. Maskhadov had signed the peace deal on behalf of the Chechens. Russia was represented by the then Secretary of its Security Council, Alexander Lebed.
However, years of rebellion and guerilla warfare against the Russian government produced warlords. Some of them, like the notorious Basayev, have embraced radical Islamist goals. "Wahhabi" Islam from Saudi Arabia has taken root in Chechnya, where public flogging and beheading were introduced as punishment. The Kremlin moved against Maskhadov two years after the elections, citing his inability to maintain peace and order. An attack by Chechen terrorists led by Basayev in neighbouring Dagestan was the trigger that sent Russian forces back to Chechnya and got the government dominated by the separatists dismissed. Basayev too carries a $10 million reward on his head and is the most wanted man in Russia today. Elections were held again in Chechnya. The separatists boycotted them and a pro-Kremlin candidate, Ahmed Kadyrov, won. Kadyrov was assassinated in dramatic circumstances last year in Grozny.
According to the Ambassador of the Russian Federation to India, Vyacheslav I. Trubnikov, Chechens were generally happy with the state of affairs in their region after Maskhadov's ouster. He said the Russian government was forced to remove Maskhadov from the helm of affairs in the late 1990s because the "situation went beyond all limits". Chechen warlords had proclaimed the goal of establishing a "caliphate from the Black Sea to the Caspian Sea". According to Trubnikov, there was comparative peace after Maskhadov's dismissal. "Chechnya is being reconstructed. Schools are being reopened. Pensioners are getting their pensions. Chechen cultural groups are going all over the world," he said.
However the Chechen secessionists, aided to a great extent by the West, kept themselves in the international limelight. George W. Bush, when he first ran for President, openly supported the separatists, accusing the Russian government of human rights violations. The events of September 11, 2001, brought about an apparent change of heart in the White House. But after the Kremlin took a consistent and principled position on Iraq, Iran and other contentious international issues, the Bush administration has again started attacking the Kremlin, focusing on topics relating to democracy and human rights. There was pressure on the Russian government to talk to Maskhadov.
According to the Russian ambassador, the view that is sought to be conveyed to the international community is that Russia is trying to crush a people fighting for freedom. "It was not the desire of Russia to interfere in Chechen affairs. We had no alternative. Western diplomats always want us to talk to the separatists but they forget that they assassinated the lawfully elected President of Chechnya. Why do they forget this terrorist act?" he said. Besides, Trubnikov said, everybody knew that the field commanders called the shots and that Maskhadov had been reduced to a figurehead. He pointed out that the man who would replace Maskhadov - the warlord Abdul Saidulayev - is a self-proclaimed radical Wahhabi and a Saudi citizen. "There should not be any double standards on terrorism. Otherwise terrorism will survive," he said.
Russians hope that Maskhadov's death will boost the chances of a lasting peace in Chechnya. Maskhadov had a network of supporters in Western capitals that lobbied and collected funds on his behalf. He was in some respects the last credible face of the Chechen separatist movement outside Russia.
The separatists on the other hand have a different view. Umar Khambiyev, whom Maskhadov had nominated as his envoy for the peace talks he had proposed with Moscow, said that the Kremlin was at "a dead end" and that a negotiated settlement with the rebels was the only way out. The Kremlin has shown no signs of engaging the rebels in talks. However, even the rebels are aware that with unsavoury characters like Basayev in their ranks, it will be extremely difficult for them to sell the idea of an independent Chechnya to the international community.