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Chechen Peace Prospects Said to Dim in Aftermath of Maskhadov Killing

Recent Chechen history has brought to prominence two separatist leaders who have been fighting Russian forces for about a decade.

One was Aslan Maskhadov, former elected president of Chechnya, considered by many experts to be a moderate figure willing to negotiate with Russia. The other is Shamil Basayev, a far more radical leader, willing to use terrorist tactics to achieve his goal of full independence from Russia. Last month, Russian forces killed Mr. Maskhadov as he was pinned down in a bunker north of Chechnya's capital, Grozny.

Experts on the Chechen crisis say one cannot draw a parallel between the two separatist leaders. Marshall Goldman, from Harvard University, a long-time observer of the Russian scene says, "The important thing about Maskhadov was that he kept talking about the need to mediate, to work out some kind of arrangement with the Russian government. His problem was that he couldn't control everybody in Chechnya, so he could say one thing, but then the Basayevs and others would act on their own."

Experts say another difference between the two is that Mr. Maskhadov has condemned terrorist acts while Mr. Basayev has claimed responsibility for some of the worst acts of terrorism in post-Soviet Russia. They included the seizure of a Moscow theater in October 2002 and last September's raid on a school in Beslan, North Ossetia where more than 330 people were killed, half of them children. However Russian President Vladimir Putin considers both men terrorists and his fight against Chechen separatists as part of the international war on terrorism.

Yo'av Karny is a scholar who has written extensively on Chechnya who says, "To think of Maskhadov as an Osama bin Laden character, hiding in the cares of Chechnya, is truly laughable and, as it has been all along, self-serving in terms of Russian rhetoric. Sometimes I confess to not being sure whether the Russians pretend to think he was a terrorist, or are convinced that he was and in either case, that would suggest a certain detachment from reality on the part of the Russians."

Analysts say another key difference between the two men is that Mr. Maskhadov was willing to negotiate with Russian authorities while Mr. Basayev rejected any notion of talks.

John Russell is an expert on Chechnya from Bradford University. He says Mr. Maskhadov's death allows the Russian government to continue its policy of refusing to talk with Chechen separatists. "What it does do, of course, is it allows Putin to say to the international community: who is there left to negotiate with? You may not agree that we have rubbed out [ i.e., killed] an international terrorist, but you must agree that the only person left is an international terrorist, Basayev. So that by elevating Maskhadov to the same degree of diabolical international terrorism, they have actually provided a scenario in which the international community can't really insist that they [i.e., the Russians] sit down and talk with the remaining elements of the Chechen opposition."

Mr. Russell says given the current situation, there is no chance of talks between the Russians and Chechen separatists. "Maskhadov would have represented a body of moderate opinion that would have settled for less than outright Chechen independence. Basayev, I think, would not, and that's the difference, in some ways. There would be no obvious outcome of negotiations between the Russians and Basayev. There could have been a positive outcome for all concerned, if Maskhadov had survived to enter into negotiations," says Mr. Russell.

Experts say the future for any peaceful solution to the Chechen conflict is gloomy. They say Russian forces will continue to hunt down Mr. Basayev. Analysts also say there is no doubt that he will engage in more terrorist acts.

Yo'av Karny sees another outcome, now that Mr. Maskhadov is dead. According to Mr. Karny, "Disintegration of the independence movement. We should expect some violent spasms here and there, perhaps on a dramatic scale, perhaps more terrorism. But the independence movement as an organized entity is no longer. It cannot claim to speak on behalf of anyone other than its own warlords."

Chechen separatists have named Abdul-Khalim Saidullayev, a local religious leader, to succeed Aslan Maskhadov. Experts say very little is known about Mr. Saidullayev but they all agree that he neither has Aslan Maskhadov's stature nor his following.