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Analysis: What Comes After Maskhadov?

Aslan Maskhadov in 2003 Chechen leader and resistance commander Aslan Maskhadov was killed on 8 March in a special operation in Tolstoi-Yurt, north of Grozny, Russian agencies reported, citing Colonel Ilya Shabalkin, spokesman for the Russian federal forces in the North Caucasus. Maskhadov's envoy in London, Akhmed Zakaev, confirmed Maskhadov's death in a telephone call to RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service later on 8 March.

The Chechen State Defense Committee of which Maskhadov was chairman has issued a statement, posted on, saying that it assumes full executive and legislative power in accordance with the Chechen Constitution. AFP on 8 March quoted Zakaev as saying that the committee will meet within days to name a new chairman. quoted Zakaev as explicitly excluding the transfer of power to radical field commander Shamil Basaev, the next in seniority and experience after Maskhadov, and the commander most qualified and able to coordinate and control future resistance activities in the North Caucasus. Zakaev pointed out that Basaev is no longer a member of the State Defense Committee, but he added that it is essential to take into account Basaev's authority with the various resistance detachments, which are capable of operating autonomously for months at a time. Zakaev denied that any split in the ranks of the resistance is imminent, pointing out that a similar situation arose in 1996 following the death of then Chechen President Djokhar Dudaev.

But regardless of who assumes overall command of the resistance forces, Maskhadov's death effectively demolishes the last remaining hope that the ongoing conflict in Chechnya can be resolved peacefully, at the negotiating table. While Maskhadov sought repeatedly to obtain Russia's consent to a peace settlement that would guarantee the security of the Chechen people within the Russian Federation, Basaev has made it clear that he has no interest in peaceful coexistence with Russia. Moreover, it is possible that other, as yet unknown or little-known figures will emerge in the months to come to challenge Basaev for that role, or to operate independently of him.
Insofar as Maskhadov's death will almost certainly lead to an upsurge of resistance activity across the North may enhance Moscow's reliance on the pro-Russian Chechen military formations.

Talks with those new potential resistance leaders, according to former Ingushetian President Ruslan Aushev, who negotiated with one of them in Beslan during last September's hostage taking, would be "incomparably more difficult" than with Maskhadov and his associates -- even assuming that the Russian leadership would agree to any such talks. Aushev went on to warn, in an interview published in "Novaya gazeta" last month, that it would be wrong to dismiss the new generation of fighters as savages; he described them as "politicians with a young and aggressive ideology behind them...they are well-informed and armed with sophisticated technologies." More to the point, radical Islam is a far more compelling motivating force to the new generation of militants than it was for Maskhadov.

Maskhadov's death also removes the last constraints and inhibitions about attacks on Russian civilians and extending the war beyond the confines of Chechnya. Until very recently, Maskhadov had insisted that his men abide strictly by the Geneva Conventions of warfare, that they refrain from killing civilians, and that they desist from terrorist attacks elsewhere in the Russian Federation. It was only in his most recent communication just last week, with RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service, that Maskhadov hinted that he might relax the prohibition on extending fighting into other North Caucasus republics as the sole means of upping the pressure on Russia to end the war. He pointed to the emergence of autonomous militant formations in Daghestan, Ingushetia, and Kabardino-Balkaria. Those formations all maintained links to, and some were trained by, Basaev, who has claimed responsibility for numerous acts of terrorism, including the Beslan hostage taking, the Moscow theater hostage taking in October 2002, and the killing of pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov in May 2004.

Insofar as Maskhadov's death will almost certainly lead to an upsurge of resistance activity across the North Caucasus, it may enhance Moscow's reliance on the pro-Russian Chechen military formations, including the so-called special presidential guard subordinate to First Deputy Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov, Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov's son and probably the most feared and most hated man in Chechnya. Russian President Vladimir Putin already apparently regards Ramzan Kadyrov as the most credible and reliable source of "objective" information about the "true" situation in Chechnya. The news of Maskhadov's death impelled Kadyrov to affirm on 8 March his intention of capturing Basaev, whom he pledged two weeks ago to kill.

Born in exile in Kazakhstan in 1951, Maskhadov returned to Chechnya with his family in the late 1950s and proceeded to make a career in the Soviet armed forces, serving in the Soviet Far East, Hungary and the Baltics. He retired in 1992 with the rank of colonel and returned to Grozny, where he joined President Dudaev's government. Maskhadov was without doubt the lynchpin of developments in Chechnya for most of the past decade -- certainly since the killing of Dudaev in April 1996. It was Maskhadov, in his capacity as Chechen Army chief of staff, who negotiated with then Russian Security Council Secretary Aleksandr Lebed the two agreements that put an end to the 1994-96 war and paved the way for the withdrawal of Russian troops and Maskhadov's election in January 1997 as Chechen president. But almost from the outset, Maskhadov was challenged and deliberately undercut by more ruthless and less principled rivals, including Basaev, whose ill-advised incursion into neighboring Daghestan in the summer of 1999 furnished the Kremlin with the rationale for launching a new war.

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