Moscow's announcement today that it has killed Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov in a "special operation" has removed a figure seen by many Chechens as a moderate in the Chechen conflict. The head of RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service, Aslan Doukaev, predicts the result will be a further radicalization of the leadership remaining in Chechnya and less possibility for the kind of negotiated settlement to the Chechen conflict that many Western capitals are urging.
Prague, 8 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Aslan Doukaev is the head of RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service and a close observer of the Chechen conflict.
He said if in fact Maskhadov was assassinated, the action removes one of the few Chechen leaders with an air of legitimacy about him -- both within Chechen society and abroad.
"Maskhadov was elected Chechnya's president in 1997 in internationally observed elections by a landslide vote," he said. "So he had an aura of legitimacy about him. He was considered to be a moderate among Chechen leaders, and in an interview with RFE/RL late last week [4 March], in what I suppose was his last interview with the media, he said he was against violence and for solving the differences with the Russian leadership through talks."
Doukaev said that Maskhadov's removal in an apparent assassination operation now leaves leadership in Chechnya to more radical figures.
"The problem is that the most moderate leaders of the Chechen resistance are all abroad now. The commanders on the ground, with a very few exceptions, are hard-line Wahhabi-oriented fighters, basically," he said. "The most notorious one of course is [Shamil] Basaev, who has taken responsibility for attacks on Russian targets like the cinema in Moscow and then Beslan last autumn. So, it will be difficult now for Western countries to call for negotiations with Chechen resistance, because there is virtually no legitimate figure left with whom the Russians might negotiate."
Doukaev said Moscow considered Maskhadov a terrorist but that remains no publicly known conclusive evidence linking him to the planning or execution of an operation targeting civilians.
He said Maskhadov was a professional military man who spent most of his career as an artillery officer in the Soviet Army and regarded the Chechen conflict as a classic war for independence.
"He returned to Chechnya from Lithuania where he was the commander of an artillery regiment. He believed in Chechnya's independence and he wanted to be part of it. He was appointed chief of the Chechen Army, chief of staff, by the late Chechen president [Dzhokhar] Dudaev and when the war broke out he was commander of Chechen forces. Later, in 1997, he was elected Chechnya's president. He negotiated a peace deal with [then Russian President Boris] Yeltsin and when the second war broke out he was again in charge of resistance," Doukaev said.
Russian NTV television showed the chief of the Federal Security Service today informing Russian President Vladimir Putin that Maskhadov was killed.
Maskhadov's envoy in London, Akhmed Zakaev, was quoted by Ekho Moskvy radio as saying Maskhadov was probably dead, though he had no personal confirmation.