A member of the Russian special forces after Maskhadov's death last week
The death on 8 March of Chechen President and resistance commander Aslan Maskhadov has not resulted in the split within the ranks of the resistance that some Russian and pro-Moscow Chechen officials predicted. On the contrary, within 36 hours Akhmed Zakaev, Maskhadov's envoy in London, announced in a statement posted on chechenpress.co.uk, that Abdul-Khalim Sadulaev (or Saidullaev), chairman of the Sharia Supreme Court, will serve as president and military commander until such time as free elections can be held in Chechnya. Senior field commander Shamil Basaev pledged his support for Sadulaev on 10 March.
In announcing that the presidential powers now devolve on to Sadulaev, both Zakaev and Basaev referred to an extended session of the State Defense Council that allegedly took place between late July and late August 2002. That session, according to Zakaev, was attended by representatives of the Chechen Republic Ichkeria (ChRI) government and parliament and by all field commanders of senior rank. They adopted a resolution according to which in the event of Maskhadov's death or capture, Sadulaev as chairman of the Supreme Sharia Court should succeed him.
No details of such an extended State Defense Council session were made public at the time, however. Chechenpress.com reported one Defense Council meeting that summer on 5 May, at which an alim named Abdul-Khalim read the appropriate verses from the Koran to mark the death of field commanders Khattab and Aidamir Abalaev; and a second between 27 June and 3 July, at which Basaev was readmitted to membership of the Defense Council.
Maskhadov's son, Anzor, was quoted by the Azerbaijani online daily echo-az.com on 11 March as saying his father informed him one year ago that Sadulaev, in his capacity as "vice president," would succeed him in the event of his death. But neither Zakaev nor Basaev referred to Sadulaev in that capacity. In addition, the twin announcements on 10 March identifying Sadulaev as the new acting president contradict statements made the previous day by the State Defense Committee and the government of the ChRI. The former statement said that, in accordance with the constitution of the Chechen Republic Ichkeria, the State Defense Council assumes supreme executive powers following Maskhadov's death and then elects a new president. The 9 March statement by the government of the Chechen Republic Ichkeria, posted on chechenpress.co.uk, similarly said that in accordance with the constitution of the ChRI, executive power now lies with the State Defense Committee, "which should elect a new president in the very near future." And "Kommersant-Daily" on 9 March quoted Zakaev as saying that the State Defense Committee would elect a chairman to replace Maskhadov in his capacity as chairman of that body; but Zakaev did not mention electing a replacement for Maskhadov in his capacity as president.
Easing The Succession
The most probable explanation for those seeming contradictions is that the Chechen resistance forces considered it imperative to present Sadulaev as a legitimate leader, and as enjoying both the approval of his slain predecessor and the support of those bodies, both military and civilian, that are subordinate to him. Doing so would counter arguments, such as that advanced by Timur Aliev in "Izvestiya" on 11 March, that "whoever succeeds Maskhadov as leader of the moderate wing of the guerrillas is bound to have less status, simply because this person will be an appointee rather than a popularly elected president like Maskhadov." In addition, it may well have been deemed prudent at the time of the State Defense Council meeting in the summer of 2002 not to reveal publicly that Sadulaev had been chosen as Maskhadov's successor, given that doing so would have exposed him to unnecessary risk.
On 13 March, chechenpress.co.uk posted a biography of Sadulaev intended to refute Russian media portrayals of him as either a native of Saudi Arabia or a militant wahhabi, or both. ("Kommersant-Daily," for example, alleged on 10 March that "Abdul-Khalim is from Saudi Arabia. According to media reports, he trained suicide bombers and led the Wahhabi network in Chechnya.") According to the biography posted on chechenpress.co.uk, Sadulaev was born in 1967, took part in hostilities during the 1994-1996 war, and "studied with well-known Chechen theologians." He continued his religious activities between 1997-1999, when Maskhadov named him a member of the State Committee tasked with bringing the Chechen constitution into line with Islamic law at the insistence of Basaev and his supporters, who in early 1999 began their concerted effort to undermine Maskhadov's authority. During the current war, Sadulaev has headed a detachment of fighters from Argun. The biography further notes Sadulaev's appointment as Sharia Court chairman at the State Defense Council session in 2002, as a result of which he became "the legitimate head of the Chechen state from the moment of Maskhadov's death."
On 14 March, six days after Maskhadov's death and five days after the official announcement that he is Maskhadov's legitimate successor, chechenpress.co.uk posted Sadulaev's first appeal to the Chechen people, in which he praised Maskhadov's role as president and military commander and condemned his murder. Subsequent paragraphs of that appeal combine threats against Russia with qualified rejections of the use of terrorism and warnings that the international community should not expect the Chechens to adhere to those universal democratic values that contradict Chechen spiritual values. He warned, for example, that "not a single crime by Russia against the Chechen people will remain without the appropriate punishment," and that "the Chechen people are capable of demolishing the pride of its foe in the person of Russian imperialism." He said the Chechens do not condone "every conceivable form of violence against innocent people," but went on to qualify that statement by adding that "we have the right to act against the enemy using the methods that are acceptable to God."
That ambivalence is likely to play into the hands of those Russian commentators who remain convinced that it is Basaev, whether alone or, as claimed on 13 March by "The Sunday Times," in tandem with Jordanian-born Abu Havs, who from now on will determine and coordinate military operations both within Chechnya and, it is feared, elsewhere in Russia. It may also fuel speculation that some key field commanders, including Doku Umarov, may refuse to acknowledge Sadulaev's authority. But Zakaev, in an interview published in "Kommersant-Vlast" No. 10, denied that there is any place for Basaev in the new Chechen leadership, adding that Basaev currently sees himself as leading a pan-North-Caucasus war against Russia. In that context, Zakaev also denied the existence of the slightest discord among the upper echelons of the Chechen resistance.
Zakaev too differentiated between Basaev's espousal of terrorism and Sadulaev's more moderate and considerate approach; he affirmed that "violence and terror against noncombatants are unacceptable to Sadulaev." But elsewhere in the same interview, Zakaev contrasted Maskhadov -- whom he was quoted as describing as "an idealist" and as "more of a human rights activist than a military man" -- with Sadulaev, whom Zakaev said is "more of a pragmatist" and "will be guided by his perceptions of politics as it is." Zakaev further described Sadulaev as commanding "colossal and unconditional respect" among both the Chechen population and the resistance.