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Chechnya: Succession Could Signal Shift Toward Battle-Hardened Youth

Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov, who was killed on 8 March (file photo) Chechen rebel leaders announced on 10 March that the duties of their president are being passed to the young head of a religious court who was hand-picked by his predecessor. While relatively little is known about Abdul-Kharim Saidulaev, independent observers suggest his elevation marks a shift among Chechen leaders toward younger, battle-hardened men infused with strong religious faith. The change could spell trouble for those seeking a negotiated peace to this long-running conflict in southern Russia.

Prague, 11 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The killing of Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov on 8 March eliminated what was for many the public face of Chechen aspirations of increased autonomy or even independence.

The result is a new look that many regard as more militant, with less willingness or ability to negotiate a lasting peace with Moscow authorities.

Both the Maskhadov camp and that of radical Chechen field commander Shamil Basaev announced that Abdul-Kharim Saidulaev was assuming presidential powers. Saidulaev will serve as acting president until elections can be held in Chechnya, they said.
"These people will fight until the end. They are professional fighters, and I might even say that these professional 'mujahedins' will also in a way influence the [situation] in the Middle East, Iraq, and so on."

Saidulaev, who is in his 30s, is a relatively little-known figure in Chechnya and a complete mystery abroad. He is believed to have been very close to Maskhadov, who reportedly anointed him as a possible successor two years ago. Maskhadov's early backing provides him considerable credibility, but the slain former president never introduced Saidulaev to the broader public. Nor did he explain his choice.

Oleg Orlov is specialist on Chechnya at Memorial, a leading Russian human rights group. He said that Saidulaev -- and many other new Chechen commanders -- lack the authority to propose peace initiatives. "Maskhadov really had a great past," Orlov said. "He fought during the first [Chechen] war, was [Chechen president] between the wars. He was elected by all Chechens in the fairest elections that Chechnya ever had. What about Saidulaev? He has nothing even similar to that."

The new generation -- of which Saidulaev is now such a prominent member -- is different from older commanders in another crucial respect. Analysts point out that they harbor a stronger religious faith.

Aleksei Malashenko is a North Caucasus expert at the Moscow Carnegie Center. He says that many of the younger breed of Chechen leaders profess radical forms of Islam and are closer to Arab Islamists than to Maskhadov.

Malashenko said the appointment of Saidulaev highlights a general trend toward a new, battle-hardened generation: "They belong to a generation which has grown up during the war. These people -- I am not sure if they know how to read or write, but hope they do -- certainly know how to fight. These boys were 15 to 16 years old when the war began."

The identities of these young people remains something of a mystery -- and observers generally decline to name them. However, Malashenko said that other young, lower-ranking Chechen field commanders are likely to have even less political experience than Saidulaev. But he said they have been fighting Russian troops for much of their lives, and have a great zeal to continue.

Such a generational change could bode ill for any peaceful solution to the Chechen conflict. "These people will fight until the end," Malashenko said."They are professional fighters, and I might even say that these professional 'mujahedins' will also in a way influence the [situation] in the Middle East, Iraq, and so on."

Analysts say it is difficult to predict what Saidulaev's leadership will bring or even how long he might serve as leader. "On the whole nobody knows him, he is a dark horse and seems to be a dark, temporary figure," Malashenko said.

Malashenko says that former Chechen leaders -- including the first-ever Chechen President General Djokhar Dudaev or former Soviet Colonel Maskhadov -- had the psychology of Soviet officers. That arguably made them more suitable partners for the Kremlin.

Such is not the case with Saidulaev or so many other young Chechen commanders.

See also: Analysis: What Comes After Maskhadov?

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