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Two Very Different Leaders Shape Recent Chechen History 


For the past 10 years, Chechnya has been the scene of violence as Russian troops try to defeat separatist rebels. Earlier this month Russian security forces killed one of the separatist leaders, Aslan Maskhadov. VOA Senior Correspondent André de Nesnera looks at the two separatist leaders who have shaped recent Chechen history.

Chechnya, located in the north Caucasus region, has been a thorn in Russia's side for centuries. First czars and then Soviet leaders fought independence movements, and while Chechnya remains part of Russia, separatists are to this day engaged in a war with Russian troops.

The current Chechen separatist movement has been led by two military men with differing approaches to Russia. One was Aslan Maskhadov, who was considered by many experts to be a more moderate figure, willing to negotiate with Russian authorities. The other is Shamil Basayev, a far more radical leader who has not shied away from terrorist tactics in his quest for total independence from Russia.

Earlier this month, Russian security forces killed Aslan Maskhadov after he was pinned down in a bunker in the village of Tolstoy-Yurt, north of Chechnya's capital, Grozny.

Charles Fairbanks, director of the Central-Asian Caucasus Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, says Mr. Maskhadov was a gifted soldier when he began his career in the Soviet Army and rose to the rank of colonel in the artillery.

"When the Soviet Union broke up [December 1991], he returned to Chechnya and was appointed by Chechnya's first secessionist president, Dzhokar Dudayev, to be chief of staff of the Chechen armed forces," he said. "He played that role throughout the first Chechnya-Russia war from 1994 to '96. He won a great victory when the Chechen forces secretly made their way into Grozny in August 1996, surrounding many Russian units and forcing an ignominious halt to the war."

In January 1997, after Russian forces had pulled out, Mr. Maskhadov was elected President of Chechnya, receiving over 65 percent of the votes cast. International observers certified those elections as free and democratic and the results were recognized by Russia.

However Yo'av Karny, a scholar who has written extensively on Chechnya, says despite his resounding mandate, Mr. Maskhadov was unable to stabilize Chechnya.

"He failed primarily in disarming many quasi-independent formations, in disciplining commanding officers who thought of war as a permanent occupation," he said. "He failed to deal effectively with foreigners, Islamic missionaries, as there were many hailing from the Arab world who wanted to replace the indigenous, reasonably tolerant, unimposing Islam of the Chechens with a much purer, more aggressive form of Islam that we have come to associate with the likes of al-Qaida and at the end of the day, he failed to make something of the victory he had won on the battlefield."

One of the commanders he failed to control was Shamil Basayev, a man who, several years earlier in 1995, led his fighters to the southern Russian town of Budyonovsk. There, they took over a hospital and 1,500 hostages. Russian forces failed to dislodge him. More than 120 people were killed. Eventually, Mr. Basayev negotiated with the Russian government, released his prisoners and got safe passage back to Chechnya.

Yo'av Karny says Mr. Basayev ran against Mr. Maskhadov in the 1997 Chechnya presidential elections, where he received about one third of the votes cast.

"Maskhadov tried to co-opt him, making him acting prime minister in charge of economic reconstruction, but Basayev was not into economics and reconstruction and very quickly thereafter, drifted back to his freelance military activities," he said. "[He] ended up invading the neighboring province of Dagestan in the summer of 1999, giving the Russian generals the pretext they needed to re-invade Chechnya."

That forced Mr. Maskhadov back in the hills of the North Caucasus, fighting a guerilla war against Russia. Mr. Maskhadov's presidency was effectively ended.

Since that time, Shamil Basayev has claimed responsibility for some of the worst acts of terrorism in post-Soviet Russia, acts condemned by Aslan Maskhadov. They included the seizure of a Moscow theater in October 2002, the suicide bombings of two Russian passenger jets in August 2004 and last September's raid on a school in Beslan, North Ossetia where more than 330 people were killed, half of them children.

"Since the horrendous events of the school hostage-taking in Beslan last September, he [Basayev] has really been an international pariah, beyond the pale [totally unacceptable]; nobody, under any circumstances can justify taking children hostage and putting on the line the lives of hundreds of children and their parents and their teachers," said John Russell, an expert on Russia and Chechnya who teaches at Bradford University, England. "He himself has said that if the Russians will not listen when they take a school hostage, the next time it might have to be a kindergarten. So he's made it quite explicit that he will do whatever it takes to get the war to end."

Many western experts on Russia say the two Chechen leaders cannot be compared, although the Russian government has labeled them both as terrorists. Experts say Mr. Maskhadov condemned terrorist acts and called for negotiations with Moscow, while Mr. Basayev has made it clear by his actions that he will stop at nothing to achieve his ultimate goal, an independent Chechnya free of Russian forces. With the death of Mr. Maskhadov, experts say there is virtually no chance of finding a peaceful solution to the Chechen conflict anytime soon.

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