ON March 8, 2005, Asian Maskha- dov, the elected President of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, was killed in what was likely an assas- sination attempt by the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB). Maskhadov was a committed Muslim of the Naqshbandi tariqa and a brilliant and successful mil- itary commander. His political modera- tion placed him in an uncomfor-table position between Moscow’s authoritarianism and brutality on one side, and unwieldy gangs and terrorists – some foreign – on the other. In his refusal to compromise the right of his people to independence, and his rejection and condemnation of the targeting of civilians, Maskhadov’s life and death evinced a kind of heroism that was as uplifting as it was tragic.
Born in 1951 in Kazakhstan – Josef Stalin had the entire population of Chechnya sent there in cattle cars after the end of World War Two – Maskhadov returned to his homeland at the age of six, and would subsequently serve in the Soviet army and rise in its ranks. In 1991, Chechnya, like many other Soviet republics, declared independence, and for years, Moscow did little in protest.
But in 1994, Russian President Boris Yeltsin ordered the invasion of Chechnya and rejected its claim to independence. Maskhadov served as army chief of staff under the first Chechen president Dzhokhar Dudayev, who the Russians assassinated in 1996. In his often quite literal – drunken hubris, Yeltsin frequently declared victory over Chechen forces after having seized control of Grozny, the Chechen capital, only to subsequently lose control to them. The Chechen success was largely propelled by a “bait and swarm” strategy: a segment of Chechen forces would attract the Russians to surround them and the remaining Chechens would in turn ambush the foolhardy Russians. In 1996, under the leadership of Maskhadov and Shamil Basayev, the Chechens did just that and their success on the battlefront put Russia at the peace table. Maskhadov negotiated an interim agreement with Gen. Alexander Lebed, which gave the Chechens de-facto independence. The final status of Chechnya was to have been settled in five years, in 2001.
In 1997, Maskhadov was won the Chechen presidency in elections viewed as fair by international monitors. Unfortunately, Maskhadov was unable to replicate his victories on the battlefront in the political field. His authority was weakened by local kidnappers, gangs and militias, foreign militants, and Russian obduracy. Guns and gangs dominated Chechnya, a land marred by years of a brutal, Russian scorched earth campaign, and its hopes for true sovereignty were soon obliterated.
In 1999, the incursion into Dagestan by Basayev, who Maskhadov defeated in the presidential election, and the series of Moscow apartment bombings-which the Kremlin blamed on Chechens, but while serious evidence incriminates the Russian FSB – provided a pretext for Yeltsin to order a reinvasion of Chechnya. Later that year, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin would succeed Yeltsin as president He won the 2000 elections partially due to his promise to end the conflict in Chechnya by any means necessary.
Putin’s atrocious military campaign in Chechnya earned the scorn of then presidential candidate George W. Bush, who in 2000, proposed cutting of International Monetary Fund assistance and import/export loans to Russia until “they understand they need to resolve the dispute peacefully and not be bombing women and children and causing huge numbers of refugees to flee Chechnya.” Unfortunately, the Bush administration’s unilateralism and “war on terror” quashed any possibility of such punitive measures. President Bush looked into Putin’s eyes, miraculously “saw his soul,” and in it dissolved any concern for Chechen rights.
Russia installed a puppet ruler, Ahmad Kadyrov, a former mufti and resistance leader whose administration was marred by corruption and thuggery. Kadyrov was assassinated in a bombing, for which Basayev claimed responsibility. Basayev also claimed responsibility for the horrible Beslan massacre and the Moscow theater siege – both of which Maskhadov unequivocally condemned.
Maskhadov had been effectively sidelined since Putin’s ascension to power. Yet his enduring trademark, his moderation – the Los Angeles Times wrote that Maskhadov was “recognized as the only Chechen guerrilla leader moderate enough to strike a deal with the Kremlin yet influential enough to make it stick with rebel fighters” – was a commodity that repeatedly revitalized his campaign to be heard. Ironi-cally, this moderation and correlative international legitimacy – albeit far short of support – may have been what in the end cost him his life.
Yury Dubnov from the Russian Izvestia speculates:
Maybe his present diplomatic activity and his quite successful attempt to save his political reputation in the eyes of Europe was the last straw for the nervous Russian government… instead of the weak argument that there is nothing to discuss with Maskhadov as he controls no one there is the unbeatable argument that there really is no one to speak to now.
Asian Maskhadov was a brave, brilliant and moral commander and a moderate political figure. He rejected terrorism and submission to foreign rule. Maskhadov respected the Islamic and Naqshbandi traditions and the history of his people’s plight He deferred to his faith and intellect not indiscriminate violence, in seemingly desperate times. He was an embattled force of stability in the midst of pseudo-Islamic purveyors of fitna, He sought peace but had no partner.
Maskhadov was precisely the type of peace partner a sensible and humane government in Moscow would desire, and precisely the type of figure the current Russian government would seek to eliminate. While Chechnya largely remains in ruins, it is a transit point for Caspian oil and lies at the edge of Russian Federation, bordering a region which Moscow would like to retain as a sphere of influence. Invasions of Chechnya were also employed as election strategies by Yeltsin and Putin. Energy, territory, influence, hubris, and electoral politics are some of the reasons why Russia holds on to Chechnya with its hands clutched around its throat Russia’s elimination of a viable partner for peace and an elected president combined with the relative silence of the major powers, demonstrate the falseness of the international community’s pledge to reward those who seek democracy and peace, and reject terror.
Asian Maskhadov, in life and death, served as a witness, a shaheed, of the honor and dignity of a God-centered life, principled action, and steadfastness. What remains are the social and religious continuity he preserved for his people and the leadership model he set for the next generation of young Chechens.
The Chechens have historically been the toughest military opponent of Russian expansionism, and their struggle will likely continue.