Aslan Maskhadov

Moderate Chechen leader who failed to establish a modus vivendi with Russia
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The Independent Online

Aslan Aliyevich Maskhadov, soldier and politician: born 21 September 1951; elected President, Republic of Chechnya 1997; married Kusama Semiyeva (one son, one daughter), died Tolstoy-Yurt, Chechnya 8 March 2005.

Aslan Aliyevich Maskhadov, soldier and politician: born 21 September 1951; elected President, Republic of Chechnya 1997; married Kusama Semiyeva (one son, one daughter), died Tolstoy-Yurt, Chechnya 8 March 2005.

As Chechnya's guerrilla war with Russia and, increasingly, the brutal civil war within the small north Caucasian republic grind on, the population and its leaders are being decimated. First was the self-declared republic's president Dzhokhar Dudayev, killed by a Russian missile in 1996, to be followed by a string of politicians, field commanders and gangsters, including recently two of the nastiest, Ruslan Gelayev and Akhmad Kadyrov.

But the killing in the bunker of a house in northern Chechnya of Aslan Maskhadov - freely elected as Chechnya's president with two-thirds of the vote back in January 1997 - has deprived the rebel forces of a moderate, calming voice. Many, though, believed he was a declining influence on the rebels, despite growing popular weariness and desperation over the lawlessness, poverty, death, destruction and increasingly murderous rule by the pro-Kremlin Chechen regime installed in 2000 by the Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Lacking the exuberant bravado of some of the more flamboyant and bloodthirsty rebels, such as Shamil Basayev, Maskhadov was always disciplined, controlled and the centre of calm in a crowded room. His fighting manner drew more on his training in the Soviet armed forces (where, rarely for a Chechen, he reached the rank of colonel) - not for strategy or tactics but for the presence of mind to plan ahead and draw on his forces' strengths.

Maskhadov's upbringing was imbued with echoes of the fate of his small nation. On Red Army Day in 1944 the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin had deported the entire Chechen people to Kazakhstan, killing nearly half the population. It was there in exile in the bleak steppes of the Karaganda region that Maskhadov was born in 1951 as a younger child in a large family.

Not until 1957 and the re-establishment of the Chechen-Ingush autonomous republic were Maskhadov and his family allowed to return to their native land. The family settled in the village of Zebir-Yurt in Chechnya's northern Nadterechny district.

After completing secondary school in 1968, he entered the Tbilisi Artillery College to train as a professional military officer. From 1972 to 1978 Maskhadov served in the Soviet army's Far Eastern Military District near Ussuriysk, rising through the ranks to become battalion chief-of-staff. In 1978 he entered the Kalinin Artillery Academy in Leningrad, graduating with honours in 1981. He then served as battalion commander, regimental chief-of-staff and artillery regiment commander in the Soviet Army Southern Group, based in Hungary.

From 1986 to 1992, Maskhadov served as regimental commander and later as anti-aircraft and artillery division chief of staff at the Baltic Military District in Vilnius, Lithuania, where he observed at first hand the successful nationalist campaign to oust the Soviet occupiers and regain independence. In a move he later bitterly regretted, he took part in storming the Vilnius television centre in January 1991, which killed several Lithuanians.

In December 1992, as tensions rose with Russian forces back home, Maskhadov retired from military service and returned to Chechnya. Later that year, President Dudayev appointed him first deputy chief of staff of Chechnya's embryonic armed forces. In July 1994, Maskhadov became chief of staff.

Within months, the Russian president Boris Yeltsin launched all-out war to crush the defiant Chechens, and even Maskhadov was astounded by the fierce Chechen resistance as Russian troops stormed the capital, Grozny, at New Year 1995. He continued the war, refusing to retreat to the southern mountains as the Russians had expected.

In August 1996, Chechen forces under Maskhadov's command successfully ousted Russian forces from Grozny. That battle marked a turning point in the war, initiating bilateral negotiations that resulted in complete withdrawal of Russian troops from Chechnya. At the end of August, Maskhadov and the then Russian National Security Adviser, Alexander Lebed, signed the Khasavyurt Accords, formalising the Russian withdrawal. The accords envisioned that relations between Russia and Chechnya would be "defined in accordance with universally recognised principles and norms of international law" (not quite the independence Maskhadov hoped for) and called for joint efforts to rebuild Chechnya's devastated economy and infrastructure.

Maskhadov's 1997 election as President against 12 other candidates was recognised as free and fair by the OSCE, the United States and the Russian Federation. In May 1997, Maskhadov signed a treaty of peace and friendship with President Yeltsin, which rejected "forever the use of force or threat of force in resolving all matters of dispute". The Russian government later binned these agreements and in September 1999 - the month after Putin became Russian prime minister - launched the second war, and imposed their own leadership on the republic.

Perhaps in the last decade Chechnya's happiest moments came after the Russian retreat in 1996. Maskhadov exchanged his combat fatigues for smart suits and ties (though retaining the tall Caucasian lambskin hat, the papakha) and appeared in Britain and the US.

His London visit in March 1998 - hosted by the former Conservative Party treasurer Lord McAlpine of West Green - was bizarre. Dinner with Baroness Thatcher, an address at Chatham House, dinner with the Provost of Oriel College, Oxford, and a visit to the Imperial War Museum hosted by Field Marshal Lord Bramall were unlikely events for the president of a would-be independent state rapidly descending into chaos, anarchy and lawlessness. As talk of business deals worth billions of pounds filled the air, the only reality that intruded was Maskhadov's meeting with the families of two British aid workers being held hostage in Chechnya. Last in a long line of interviewers in his suite at the Dorchester Hotel, I could get little out of him except short speeches that everything in Chechnya would be fine. His inability to tackle the day-to-day problems engulfing his statelet was clear.

Maskhadov tried but failed as a political leader. His skill as a military leader in melding a disparate group of young Chechen men eager for adventure into a force capable of holding off the Russian army, secret police and interior ministry forces gained his country several years' respite in which a peaceful population could have established a modus vivendi with the Russians.

To the loss of the Chechen people, he merely presided over a gangster- infested enclave where family ties of loyalty had been destroyed. When the Russians reinvaded, he could do little more than rally the small forces loyal to his moderate vision of an independent Chechnya, while the initiative was seized by more radical fighters backed by Arab cash and Wahhabi Islam.

Maskhadov condemned the taking of civilian hostages in a Moscow theatre in 2002 and in a Beslan school last year, but Russia claimed not to believe him. It put a bounty of $10m on his and Basayev's head.

Felix Corley