Thursday, March 10, 2005

The Maskhadov killing

Aslan Maskhadov, leader of the Chechen rebels, was killed by Russian forces on Tuesday. (To paraphrase Tom Lehrer, this took place during Michael Jackson's trial, so your local media may not have covered it.)

The Economist has an analysis of the situation:

Though Russia had branded him a terrorist, Mr Maskhadov was one of the more conciliatory voices in Chechnya’s rebel camp. A former colonel in the Soviet army, he added his weight to the Chechen independence movement in the early 1990s. He was at the forefront of peace talks with Moscow in 1996, in the wake of an invasion of Chechnya by Russian troops, and his pragmatism was said to have impressed Russian negotiators. He was democratically elected as Chechen president in 1997, partly on his war record but also because he was less radical than his opponents and thus offered a better chance of ending the conflict. But Chechnya splintered on his watch, with warlords taking control of much of the republic, and he became increasingly powerless. After Russian troops went in again in 1999, Mr Maskhadov took control of the rebel forces. However, he often invited Mr Putin to hold talks with him, saying a peaceful solution to the conflict could be worked out in a matter of minutes. The Russian leader refused, saying he did not talk to terrorists.

The next leader of the Chechen resistance is unlikely to be as willing as Mr Maskhadov to hold out olive branches. One strong contender is Shamil Basayev, a ruthless guerrilla warlord. Unlike Mr Maskhadov, the 40-year-old Mr Basayev believes Russian civilians, including children, are legitimate targets: “Russians are accomplices in this war. It is just that they don’t all have weapons in their hands,” he told Britain’s Channel 4 television in an interview last month.

Mr Basayev was probably behind the bombing of a Moscow metro station in February last year, which killed around 40. And he has masterminded numerous raids and sieges, including the hostage-taking at a school in the southern Russian town of Beslan last September, in which more than 320 died, half of them children, after Russian special forces stormed the building. The Russian authorities also linked Mr Maskhadov to the Beslan siege, though he publicly denied involvement and said that Mr Basayev should go on trial for the massacre after the conflict was over.

A devout Muslim, Mr Basayev is said to be more interested in spreading militant Islam than in winning independence for Chechnya. Were he to take over as Chechnya’s rebel leader, it could play into the hands of Mr Putin, who has sought to define the conflict as his very own war on international Islamist terrorism—despite Russia’s terror problem in fact being overwhelmingly home-grown.


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