Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev

Poet and writer turned Chechen separatist politician
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The Independent Online

Zelimkhan Abdulmuslimovich Yandarbiyev, politician, writer and poet: born 1952; Chechen vice-president 1993-96, interim president 1996-97; died Doha, Qatar 13 February 2004.

"Rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated," quipped Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, echoing Mark Twain, as Russian news agencies reported his alleged death in a shoot-out in the Chechen town of Urus-Martan in April 1996. As Chechen vice-president, Yandarbiyev had just taken over as acting president of the rebel North Caucasian republic in the wake of President Dzhokhar Dudayev's assassination in a Russian rocket attack.

Yet, to Russian dismay, the former poet and children's writer lived to fight another day, eventually meeting his death yesterday after his car exploded in the Gulf state of Qatar, where he was based as emissary and fund-raiser for the Chechen rebels and, Russia and the United States claimed, the movement's link with al-Qaida.

Like almost all leading Chechen politicians and warlords, Yandarbiyev was born after Stalin had exiled the entire Chechen nation beyond the Ural Mountains in retaliation for alleged collaboration with Nazi Germany during the Second World War. He first came to Chechnya aged six, when his family returned from Kazakhstan.

Like many Chechens he returned to Central Asia, to begin work in 1969 on building sites, but eventually returned to Chechnya. After graduating from technical university in Grozny, the Chechen capital, in 1981, Yandarbiyev studied at the literature institute in Moscow, before becoming head of production at the Chechen publishing house.

In 1989, as the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev was opening up, he joined the Chechen-Ingush writers' association and headed the Chechen political organisation Bart ("Accord"). In May 1990, he founded and led the Vainakh Democratic Party, the first Chechen party, which was committed to an independent Chechnya.

In November 1990 he became a deputy chairman to the newly formed Chechen National Congress, which was led by Dudayev and which ousted the Soviet-era leadership. In the first Chechen parliament, from 1991-93, Yandarbiyev headed the media committee. With Dudayev, he signed an agreement with Ingush leaders splitting the joint Chechen-Ingush republic in two.

As internal politics became tenser, Yandarbiyev backed Dudayev's moves to suspend parliament and the constitutional court, and became acting vice-president. He led unsuccessful negotiations with Dudayev's Chechen opponents. But when the Russian president Boris Yeltsin launched an all-out war on Chechnya, Yandarbiyev sheltered in a small mountain village out of harm's way. Indeed, he spent much of his vice-presidential term writing books on Chechnya's independence struggle.

After he was appointed successor to Dudayev, the Russian human rights champion Sergei Kovalev called Yandarbiyev "the worst variant for Chechnya", arguing that it would be much easier for Russia to negotiate with Aslan Maskhadov or even field commander Shamil Basayev than with "a person who stays in the shadow but voices the most extremist views".

Dudayev's death in 1996 forced Yandarbiyev into the limelight, but as he was happy to leave military command to Maskhadov, the field commanders were happy to leave him in nominal political control. He headed the rebel delegation to talks with Yeltsin and the then Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin in Moscow in October that year. However, Yandarbiyev failed to gain wide endorsement from the Chechen people. In January 1997 he came a poor third in presidential elections that saw Maskhadov sweep to victory.

As Russia again turned to war to crush the republic, Yandarbiyev fled abroad. He opened a Chechen embassy in the Afghan capital Kabul and a consulate in Kandahar during the reign of the Taliban.

In the past few years he had lived in Qatar, reportedly raising money for the Chechen rebels, although he vigorously denied any connections to terrorists and al-Qaida. The United Nations and the United States did not believe his protestations. Russia repeatedly sought his extradition, but failed.

Yandarbiyev was a weak man who failed to command much respect in Chechnya or abroad. His first steps to found a Chechen political system would have failed had Chechen intellectuals not found him a useful tool to oust the Soviet-era leadership of their republic. The radical Islamic views he espoused were also unpopular.

He did little in the first war with Russia which ended in 1996, and failed to follow up on the potential for peace. As war resumed under President Vladimir Putin, he lived an easy life in exile, but for the miserable population of war-torn Chechnya - caught between a brutal Russian occupation and ruthless bandits masquerading as freedom fighters - he achieved nothing.

Felix Corley