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Chechen Leader Gives Exclusive Interview To RFE/RL

Aslan Maskhadov (file photo) Aslan Maskhadov supplied extensive answers on 4 March to questions submitted two weeks earlier via the Internet by RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service. The Russian text of the interview was also posted on 4 March on the pro-Maskhadov website

Asked about the rationale for the unilateral cease-fire he declared in January in a bid to persuade Moscow to agree to unconditional talks on ending the war in Chechnya, Maskhadov said he believes that Russian President Vladimir Putin has been "profoundly misinformed" about the situation in Chechnya by the Russian security services, top Russian generals, his aides, and what Maskhadov refers to as the "puppet" pro-Moscow regime installed in Grozny.

Maskhadov said he thinks that as a result, Putin's understanding of the situation in Chechnya "is far from reality." He acknowledged that "there is a well-established practice in the army of reporting what your superior wants to hear from you," and that Russian intelligence probably operates according to a similar practice. In a disparaging reference to pro-Moscow Chechen First Deputy Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov, for whom Putin apparently has considerable respect, Maskhadov asked rhetorically "What reliable information can a traitor who has only completed two years of high-school education provide?"

Maskhadov went on to say that he believes a 30-minute face-to-face "honest dialogue" with Putin would be sufficient to explain to the Russian president what the Chechens want, and thus to end the war. He added that the Chechens for their part have no idea what Russia wants from Chechnya. Maskhadov proposed taking as a basis for the proposed talks the twin issues of security guarantees for the Chechen people and a Chechen commitment to respect Russia's regional and defense interests in the North Caucasus.

Asked whether the cease-fire he proclaimed in January was observed, Maskhadov said "I do not think there are detachments on Chechen territory that would ignore my orders, or in Ingushetia, Daghestan, and Kabardino-Balkaria.... All military detachments on the territory of Chechnya and neighboring republics are subordinate to the leadership of the Chechen resistance." That assertion is an implicit rejection of Russian officials' claims that most fighters in the North Caucasus, including the militants operating in republics bordering on Chechnya, take their orders not from Maskhadov but from radical field commander Shamil Basaev.

Maskhadov added, however, that he issued a caveat to field commanders that despite the unilateral cease-fire they were free to resort to force to protect themselves, which they did when surrounded in the suburbs of Grozny on 21 February. On that occasion, the Chechen fighters escaped but the Russian forces sustained numerous casualties entering a mined building -- casualties that could, Maskhadov argued, have been avoided if "the politicians had enough sense to comprehend one thing -- that this conflict cannot be solved by force."

Maskhadov went on to discuss the geographical expansion of hostilities since the second Chechen war began in the fall of 1999. He disclosed that on the eve of hostilities he appealed to the leaders of all North Caucasus republics, convinced that if they presented a united antiwar front Moscow would not dare to launch a new incursion, but only former Krasnodar Krai Governor Nikolai Kondratenko and "respected" Ingushetian President Ruslan Aushev promised their support. Maskhadov said he waited in vain for three hours in Aushev's office for Putin -- then Russian prime minister -- to arrive for talks, but Putin telephoned and said that President Boris Yeltsin had ordered him not to come. Maskhadov said he believes that was merely an excuse on Putin's part, and that Yeltsin himself did not want a second war.

Maskhadov went on to say that "already at the beginning of this war it was clear that it was impossible to confine it within the limits of Chechnya. The same sort of punitive operations that were launched in Chechnya also began in Ingushetia, Daghestan, North Ossetia, and Kabardino-Balkaria. It was the Federal Security Service that inflicted the war on those republics," not Osama bin Laden or Al-Qaeda. Maskhadov said he is certain that "bin Laden couldn't even find Chechnya on a map."

In that context, Maskhadov claimed that "we were constrained to broaden the front of military resistance. On my orders, additional sectors were established: Ingush, Kabardino-Balkar, Daghestan, etc. Amirs [commanders] of these fronts were appointed, and they are all subordinate to the military leadership of the Chechen resistance."

This is the first time that Maskhadov has claimed any personal responsibility for military operations beyond the borders of Chechnya; in earlier interviews and addresses to the Chechen people, for example in June 2003, he explicitly ordered his subordinates not to engage in hostilities elsewhere in the Russian Federation.

Maskhadov further defined as the objective of the ongoing armed resistance "saving our people from arbitrary Russian reprisals and barbarity," and he added that "we shall consider we have achieved that goal when we deprive Russia of the right to continue killing Chechens with impunity." Maskhadov said that the Chechen side is ready to sit at the negotiating table together with "any international experts" and discuss with Russia the optimum model for future bilateral relations. In this context, he pointed to the contradiction between Russian officials' claims, on the one hand, that Chechnya is "an internal domestic Russian problem," and, on the other hand, those officials' allegations of external involvement in the form of Al-Qaeda.

Invited by RFE/RL to speculate about Putin's motives for beginning the war, Maskhadov replied that it is not clear whether Moscow's priority is to defend Russia's territorial integrity or to defend Russia's regional and defense interests. He pointed out that Chechnya is a relatively small republic encompassing only 17,000 square kilometers, and that "while Russia has been at war with Chechnya, the Chinese have occupied the whole of Primorskii Krai and Trans-Baikal."

Maskhadov denied that his January cease-fire offer was prompted by the abduction of his relatives. Asked how the situation will develop if peace talks do not take place in the near future, Maskhadov said, "the war will continue.... Chechen mujahedin will resist to the end in this struggle, and the flame of this conflagration will spread to the entire North Caucasus." And in seeming contrast to his earlier prohibition on terrorist acts outside Chechnya and directed against the Russian civilian population (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 June 2003), Maskhadov continued: " The people of Russia will experience constant fear of possible retribution by suicide bombers in revenge for the evil deeds of the [Federal Security Service] and the federal forces in Chechnya."

Maskhadov did, however, admit the possibility that "when the interests of Western states and those of Russia collide in the Caucasus, when the leaders of those Western states comprehend the level of danger to the entire civilized world that emanates from Russia, then they will line up and beg us Chechens to agree to end the war."

Asked about the West's role, Maskhadov said the West is sitting it out, playing with Putin and trying to achieve its own global strategic objectives, and that the Russian leadership for its part is taking advantage of Western forebearance to "continue to commit monstrous crimes on Chechen territory."

Maskhadov dismissed as "risible" the proposed roundtable on Chechnya to be convened by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe's (PACE) rapporteur for Chechnya, Swiss parliamentarian Andreas Gross. That event is scheduled for later this month, but the venue remains unclear. The Council of Europe originally proposed Strasbourg, but over the past week several members of the pro-Moscow Chechen government have insisted that it should be held in Grozny. The interlocutors are Russian and pro-Moscow Chechen officials; Gross tried to include Maskhadov's representatives, but his envoy Umar Khanbiev declined to attend. Khanbiev told the information agency Daymohk on 2 March that Maskhadov has ordered the Chechen Foreign Ministry to consider "freezing" all contacts with PACE.

Maskhadov contemptuously dismissed the various pro-Moscow Chechen "bandit formations" running loose in Chechnya as "traitors" to the Chechan cause, adding that this phenomenon dates back to the 1994-96 Chechen war when mavericks such as Ruslan Labazanov, Umar Avturkhanov and Bislan Gantamirov headed such bands. The difference, according to Maskhadov, is that those commanders "had brains," the inference being that Ramzan Kadyrov does not.

Maskhadov admitted that occasional clashes occurred in 1994-96 between such bands and the resistance forces (of which he at that time was commander in chief), and that he personally participated in such clashes, but that they were never protracted. He said that "history should teach us" that Chechens should never fight among themselves, and he went on to claim that "there is a clear understanding -- and I mean today -- how a Chechen from one side or the other should behave during a forced clash. Not a single self-respecting Chechen policeman...would ever refuse help to the mujahedin," because those Chechen police know how the war will end, and that "tomorrow we shall have to live together."

Maskhadov implied that Federal Security Service Director Nikolai Patrushev was the "godfather" of the pro-Moscow Chechen police force and that Patrushev created that force in the hope of triggering a civil war in Chechnya -- but to no avail.

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