Obituary: Dzhokhar Dudayev

Dzhokhar Dudayev, the rebel Chechen leader who was killed last Sunday in a Russian rocket attack, was a hero to his own people but a figure for whom Russia's political and military authorities reserved the deepest hatred and contempt. His drive to create an independent Chechnya caused President Boris Yeltsin to launch what the Russian leader later described as the worst mistake of his presidency: a war in the northern Caucasus that has so far killed more than 30,000 people and badly tarnished Yeltsin's image as the standard-bearer of post-Communist Russian democracy.

Dudayev, whose pin-striped suit, porkpie hat and thin moustache gave him an appearance rather like that of a 1920s silent-movie actor, was born in Chechnya in 1944, perhaps the most tragic year in his nation's history. It was then that Josef Stalin deported the entire Chechen people to Central Asia, falsely accusing them of collaboration with Nazi invaders. Tens of thousands of Chechens died en route and in a subsequent typhus epidemic, and it was not until 1957 that the Soviet state officially rehabilitated the Chechen nation.

As a young man, Dudayev's career flourished. After leaving Kazakhstan at the age of 13, he was educated at the Tambov Aviation School in southern Russia and later at the prestigious Gagarin Aviation Academy outside Moscow. A karate champion in his youth, he joined the Communist Party in 1968 and rose smoothly up the air force's ranks to become the first Soviet general of Chechen origin. After Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in 1985 and started the reforms that ultimately led to the Soviet Union's collapse, Dudayev was the commander of a division of nuclear bomber aircraft at the Tartu air base in Estonia.

It was at this time that Dudayev first revealed the strength of his political views. Under Kremlin orders to help suppress Estonia's bid for independence, he refused a command to blockade the television and parliament buildings and was even brave enough to fly the Estonian flag at his base. For this he won lasting popularity with the Estonian people, but was transferred with his unit to Grozny, then the capital of a united Chechen-Ingush republic.

Dudayev retired from the air force, entering politics as an anti-Communist nationalist and leader of the Pan-National Congress of Chechen Peoples. This organisation swept to power in Chechnya after the abortive hardline Communist coup of August 1991, capitalising on the failure of the local leadership of the Chechen-Ingush republic to support Yeltsin and the democratic forces in Moscow.

Ironically, whereas Dudayev was on Yeltsin's side in August 1991, by 1995 he was the Russian president's mortal enemy. In contrast, Doku Zavgayev, the local Chechen leader who failed to support Yeltsin in 1991, was reinstalled by the Russians last year as the head of a pro-Moscow satellite government.

Dudayev's popularity was so great in 1991 that he won a decisive victory in presidential elections in Chechnya, which now considered itself not only separate from Ingushetia but independent from Russia. Yeltsin's response was to declare martial law in Chechnya, but he was forced into a humiliating climbdown after the parliament in Moscow refused to support him. Nevertheless, for the next three years Yeltsin subjected Chechnya to an economic blockade, branded Dudayev the criminal leader of a mafia clique and launched two unsuccessful coup attempts in Grozny.

Finally, in December 1994, came the full-scale onslaught the Chechens had long feared. The Russian army, however, distinguished itself more by its blunders and brutality than by efficiency, and Dudayev - whose secessionist ambitions had not attracted the support of any Western governments - was suddenly transformed in many people's imaginations abroad from a comical and corrupt Ruritanian hothead into a romantic and defiant crusader for the rights of small nations.

Yeltsin insisted he would never negotiate with Dudayev and only last February, when announcing his decision to run for re-election as president, declared that he would have the Chechen leader shot. With typical insouciance, Dudayev retorted earlier this month: "It's all the same who is president in Russia. President Yeltsin no longer controls the real power structures - namely, the army."

By refusing to capitulate in the face of Russia's might, Dudayev (who liked to compare himself to a lone wolf, a Chechen national emblem) won comparison with the Imam Shamil, the 19th-century Caucasian hero who fought the Russians for 25 years. Yet Dudayev was also criticised in the West for countenancing hostage-taking and terrorism by several of the armed units loosely grouped under his leadership.

He was bitter that President Bill Clinton, John Major and others refused to endorse his dream of an independent Chechen state, and by last February his statements, issued from a variety of secret hideouts, were becoming increasingly bizarre. Thus he accused the United States of funding the Russian military campaign in Chechnya, and even made the fantastic allegation that the Organisation of Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) had started the war.

Dudayev's detestation of what he portrayed as aggressive Russian imperialism in the Caucasus did not extend to a loathing of Russia's culture or people. He married a Russian, Alevtina, with whom he had two sons and a daughter. One son, Avlar, was reported to have been killed in Grozny in January 1995.

Dudayev's death deprives the Chechen nation of a leader of genuinely inspirational qualities, but one who was at times erratic and reckless. He and Boris Yeltsin both bear responsibility for the failure to negotiate a deal securing broad-ranging autonomy for Chechnya. As it is, Dudayev's homeland will bear the scars of the latest example of Russian repression in the Caucasus for decades to come.

Dzhokhar Dudayev, air force officer and politician: born 1944; married (two sons, one daughter); died 21 #April 1996.

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