Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov's reported death in a Russian anti-terrorist raid this week is raising renewed questions about the long-term future of the breakaway republic and long-standing resistance to Russian rule.
Russian investigators moved quickly to carry out tests aimed at officially confirming Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov's reported death this week in the Chechen village of Tolstoi-Yurt. As they did so, politicians and independent analysts alike began to try and envision the future in Chechnya without its popular separatist leader.
Reviled by officials in Russia, who viewed him as one of the nations' most wanted terrorists, Mr. Maskhadov's death was hailed in Russia as a victory for peace prospects in Chechnya. Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that those who took part in his killing should be awarded medals.
Addressing Russia's lower house of parliament, the Duma, on Wednesday Speaker Boris Gryzlov said everyone should hail the success of the operation, which he said had been long planned and carefully executed by Russian forces.
In remarks broadcast on Russian television, Mr. Gryzlof said he thought there would now be "much less evil in the region" following Mr. Maskhadov's death.
But other lawmakers, like Deputy Speaker Sergei Baburin of the Rodina faction, took a more cautious approach to the news. Mr. Baburin asked his colleagues in the Duma whether they really thought that Mr. Maskhadov's death solved all the problems in Russia's southern republic.
Asked to answer that same key question, Moscow-based independent political analyst Masha Lippmann told VOA that Mr. Maskhadov's death can only mean one thing as she sees it - more violence.
With [Mr.] Maskhadov dead, there is nobody to stop [Chechen warlord] Shamil Basayev from doing whatever he pleases," she said. "And he's said this openly and repeatedly that he will continue a terrorist war and will wage more terrorist attacks on the Russian territory and the Russian people. And also I think there will be such a burning desire on the part of Maskhadov supporters, of which there are many, to take revenge for his life. So, I think at least these two factors indicate that what we may see in the future is more violence not less."
Analyst Lippmann says Mr. Maskhadov's death also rules out any chance in her view that there can or ever will be peace talks between the Russians and Chechens.
"All Chechnya has for a leader [now], on the fighters side, is Shamil Basayev, a totally merciless butcher and any prospect of talks, no matter how vague is now ruled out," she said.
Alexei Malashenko of the Carnegie Moscow Center agrees that the enhanced role now likely to be played by the more radical separatist Shamil Basayev is cause for concern. And he told Russia's Echo Moscow radio that in his view, the current Moscow-backed leaders also bring little to the table.
Mr. Malashenko says former President Akhmad Kadyrov's son, Ramzan, who serves as First Deputy Prime Minister, is not a favorite among Chechens, whom he says, on the whole, are deathly afraid of him. He adds that Moscow-backed President Alu Alkhanov is an interim figure at best.
While the future may be far from clear, Mr. Malashenko assesses the present news as a big victory for President Putin and the Russian military.
The operation drew mixed reviews among the Russian press.
The influential Kommersant business daily said that it looks like the Kremlin's approach to Chechnya is changing at its core, with a more militant response now favored. Izvestia said the Kremlin decided to kill Mr. Maskhadov because of its impatience with Western pressure to enter into peace talks, as called for recently by the late leader. Other papers warned of a potential increase in separatist attacks against Russian targets to avenge their leader's death.
In Chechnya, Moscow-backed President Alu Alkhanov has rejected the idea of an upsurge in violence. As he put it, in an interview with Itar-Tass, Mr. Maskhadov was just a symbol in the hands of Mr.Basayev, with no real role or significance.
President Alkhanov said that with Mr. Maskhadov now gone, the Chechen people are free to commit to peace and unity with Russia.
But given the protracted history of the bitter conflict few people in Russia or Chechnya believe that is what will happen, especially given that the separatists have vowed to keep up Mr. Maskhadov's fight for a Chechen homeland independent of Russia.