President Mashkadov's Death Stirs Debate on Strategy for Chechnya

By C. J. CHIVERS

New York Times

march 10, 2005

MOSCOW, March 9 - The killing of Aslan Maskhadov, the Chechen rebel leader and president of the republic's underground separatist government, set off a debate in Russia on Wednesday as to whether the death was a step forward or back.

On the surface, the killing was a rare public success in Russia's Chechnya policy, in which capturing or killing prominent rebel leaders and terrorists has been a highly publicized goal. Politicians loyal to the Kremlin hailed it as a demoralizing loss to the separatists that would give Russia's security forces fresh momentum in the war.

"The elimination of a terrorist of international standing only means that there will be much less evil now," said Boris Gryzlov, the speaker of the Duma, Russia's lower house of Parliament, in remarks broadcast on national television.

Human rights organizations, however, said Mr. Maskhadov's death meant the loss of both a willing negotiator and a moderating influence over the separatists, many of whom have turned to terrorism in recent years. Greater violence, they said, may now be in store.

"Maskhadov wanted peace, and he wanted to do something about it," said Valentina D. Melnikova, head of the Union of the Committees of Soldiers' Mothers, an antiwar group that counsels Russian soldiers and veterans. "Now that he is dead the door is open for the Islamic radical leaders and movements."

The separatists themselves spoke in similar terms, announcing a three-day period of mourning but saying negotiations were now out of the question and calling for a jihad to avenge Mr. Maskhadov's death. They ordered the rebel units to continue their previously planned attacks in the spring and summer.

"The invaders and puppets claim to be celebrating victory," said one of several postings on Web sites the rebels often use. "A new period in the history of the Russian-Chechen military confrontation has started."

The divergent predictions of the effects of Mr. Maskhadov's death reflected the longstanding split between the Kremlin and critics of the Chechen war.

Russia's government describes the second war in Chechnya, which began in 1999, as a necessary part of multinational efforts against terrorist groups, and often contends that the Muslim separatists are an offshoot of Al Qaeda's international jihad.

Outside the Kremlin's circle of influence the war has been broadly condemned for the corruption and brutality of Russian forces and the Chechen proxies they support.

Mr. Maskhadov, 53, who in 1997 was legitimately elected president of the so-called Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, the name that separatists have given the tiny republic in the Caucasus, was one of the two most prominent rebel leaders.

The other, Shamil Basayev, heads an Islamic terrorist group and has claimed responsibility for the worst acts of terrorism in post-Soviet Russia, including the seizure in 2002 of a Moscow theater, the downing of two passenger jets and the seizure of a public school in Beslan last fall.

Mr. Basayev's group also deploys suicide bombers, including women, not only in the Caucasus but in Moscow. In recent years Mr. Basayev had become the Kremlin's more visible and vicious foe.

But Mr. Maskhadov presented his Russian adversaries with a political challenge.

A former Red Army colonel, he sometimes spoke against terrorism and made frequent overtures to the Kremlin to negotiate a political settlement to the war. He also quarreled with Mr. Basayev and said he would prosecute him.

Moreover, he maintained a network of supporters in the West, which gave him a mark of legitimacy that none of the other rebel commanders or terrorists could match. Last month, his government in exile convened a meeting in London with the Union of the Committees of Soldiers' Mothers to discuss a possible peace settlement. The meeting attracted the attention of European diplomats, some of whom attended.

Mr. Maskhadov was trapped by Russian commandos on Tuesday in a bunker beneath a house in a Chechen village. Officials said Wednesday that after a standoff he was killed by a grenade. That represented a shift from previous accounts, in which they said he had resisted arrest and was killed after opening fire on Russian commandos.

Because there is no clear alternative to Mr. Maskhadov, his loss, critics of the war said, could lead to a dangerous reorganization of the Chechen fighters.

"There are a lot of moderates in the separatist movement who have no leader," said Tanya Lokshina, a program director at the Moscow Helsinki Group who frequently travels to Chechnya. "Now they have a choice: either to quit or to join with Basayev. And I think most will join Basayev."