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Chechnya: President Maskhadov's Authority Is Dwindling

Prague, 12 January 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Less than two weeks ago (Jan. 1) Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov acquiesced to the repeated demands of field commander Salman Raduev to dismiss the cabinet and charged acting Prime Minister Shamil Basaev, notorious for his role in the June1995 Budennovsk Russian hostage-taking, with forming a new government.

This move will inevitably fuel the already ongoing debate in the Russian media about the extent of Maskhadov's control over his unruly countrymen and the precise alignment of domestic forces opposed to him.

A former Soviet army colonel who served as chief of staff to President Dzhokhar Dudaev, Maskhadov won the adulation of the forces serving under his command during the 20-month war against Russia. It was Maskhadov who, meeting with then Russian Security Council Secretary Aleksandr Lebed in August, 1996, signed the agreements that effectively ended hostilities and paved the way for extended talks on Chechnya's future status vis-a-vis Moscow. Many Russian politicians consequently made no secret of their desire to see Maskhadov, whom they considered pragmatic and open to reason, elected president of Chechnya rather than one of the more radical and unpredictable former field commanders such as Basaev.

Maskhadov's presidential election triumph in January, 1997, has, however, proved illusory, in that he is widely perceived if not as a figurehead, then as vested with only limited authority. The real power, most observers say, lies with the 18-man Council of Former Field Commanders headed by Vice-President Vakha Arsanov. Neither the parliament, nor the government, nor most political parties exercise a significant influence on political developments.

The former field commanders, each of whom succeeded in establishing his personal control over a specific district of Chechnya during the war, have thus emerged as a counter-balance and complement to the teyps (clans) which until late1994 constituted the single most important social and political entity. There is a strict hierarchy among the over 150 Chechen teyps, the most numerous and powerful of which, the benoy, is one of the twenty or so oldest and most respected clan groupings.

Specific teyps still control foreign policy and the oil sector. Maskhadov's own faction is supported by Chechen businessmen from the smaller teyps who made their fortunes in Russia during the war. And two further groups which are jockeying for power are likewise teyp-oriented: the former Dudaev faction, which also includes representatives of some Ingush teyps; and that of Dudaev's deputy president, writer Zelimkhan Yandarbiev, and the former chairman of the Chechen Oil Company, Khozh-Akhmet Yarikhanov, who reportedly enjoy the support of the richest and noblest teyps.

This latter faction also includes field commander Salman Raduev and First Deputy Prime Minister Movladi Udugov, who lacks teyp support and is therefore engaged in building an alternative power base in the form of the Islamic Path party which he heads. In August, 1997, Yandarbiev and Raduev founded the Warriors of Freedom movement comprising up to 1,000 war veterans, which opposes any compromise approach to securing Chechnya's formal independence from the Russian Federation.

The visible erosion of Maskhadov's authority dates from May, 1997, when he and Russian President Boris Yeltsin met in Moscow and signed a formal treaty on peace and bilateral relations. This move reportedly so outraged the Field Commanders' Council that its members contemplated a coup to depose Maskhadov.

In early July, Shamil Basaev, at that time perceived as Maskhadov's most influential supporter within the Field Commanders' Council, resigned from his post as deputy premier. Basaev himself declined to comment on his motives for doing so, but one observer has claimed that Basaev's directives were routinely ignored, and that he was not consulted when decisions were taken on matters that fell within his competence.

In late September, Maskhadov's vice president, Vakha Arsanov, described by one Russian journalist as "unpredictable, single-minded and ruthless," spontaneously ordered the expulsion of the entire Russian mission in Grozny, thereby highlighting his role as what Lebed's successor as Security Council secretary, Ivan Rybkin, termed "the tail that controls the fox." Possibly in order to preclude further destabilizing moves by Arsanov, in late October Maskhadov named Basaev first deputy prime minister and empowered him to act as premier during his trip to Turkey and the U.S.

It is not yet clear whether Maskhadov will continue to combine the posts of president and prime minister as he has done until now, despite objections from the Field Commanders' Council.

Given that Arsanov reportedly exercises full control over domestic political and economic issues, if Maskhadov appoints Basaev prime minister, Basaev may again find himself frustrated and side-lined, and thus unable to prevent the further erosion of Maskhadov's dwindling authority.

Meanwhile the combined forces of Yandarbiev, Raduev and Udugov, united by their strong antipathy to Russia, appear to await the opportune moment to realize their shared objective of establishing an Islamic state in the North Caucasus. It is an objective to which Maskhadov's avowed commitment to dialogue with Moscow is the single most substantive impediment.