Chechens welcome their own Robin Hood

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The Independent Online
Shamil Basayev and his entourage of rifle-wielding fighters had no sooner clambered out of his dusty Nissan Patrol than he was quoting his version of Churchill with all the fluency of a man who had spent a lifetime on the stump.

Perhaps we could remember Churchill's three rules about Russia, said the Chechen commander, who now - to the horror of his enemies in Moscow - wants to be president of the self-proclaimed Caucasus republic. "First, don't believe the Russians. Second, never make friends with the Russians, and third, never let a Russian into your cowshed."

Six months ago such rhetoric was only to be expected from Mr Basayev, 31, the most uncompromising of the Chechen separatist leaders, whose exploits in the war made him a latter-day Robin Hood for many of his countrymen but a terrorist in the eyes of Russia.

Diplomacy was never his style. His curriculum vitae includes robbing banks, hijacking, storming a fortress city (Grozny) and - his most notorious exploit - rounding up 1,000 hostages in Budennovsk, Russia, last year.

But the 21-month Chechen war is over. The Russians say all their troops will have left by the end of next month. They leave behind a wrecked and bewildered territory that Mr Basayev seeks to lead not as a soldier but as a statesman.

But his decision is also the political equivalent of a two-fingered salute to his enemies. No one is more aware than he that his candidacy will infuriate Moscow, rekindling anger over a peace deal many regard as a capitulation to Chechen demands to secede. Indignation will be greater still when they contemplate his election manifesto: the priority of the man who was Russia's most wanted terrorist will be to fight crime.

It is an issue that has begun to matter after a war that was itself a monstrous crime, claiming 100,000 lives. Fighters, still in uniform, race down the highway in BMWs without number plates, yet the euphoria brought by the spoils of success has given way to distrust and resentment. "They have all become so arrogant," said an academic who used to support the former separatist leader Dzhokhar Dudayev. "Before, they seemed such idealists. Now it's everyone for himself. They say, `We fought for independence for two years. Now we want our salaries'. So they take them."

The worst manifestation of this is kidnappings, often by Che-chens seeking to settle wartime scores with ransoms of $50,000 (pounds 33,000) or more. Although some of those who worked with the previous Moscow-backed regime are in the coalition government, many are not; some are too frightened to leave their homes for fear of abduction.

But what of his own mass kidnapping in Budennovsk, in which more than 100 Russians died? "It was my fate. It helped force a peace settlement. Look at what we have now, and ...then. An end to the genocide of the Chechen people. A troop pull-out. A solution to problems at the negotiating table."

He has a point. A year, even six months ago, few would have foreseen that he would have been outlining his presidential ambitions to journalists in the centre of Grozny, in the courtyard, no less, of the building that used to house the Russian Federal Security Services.

His rivals in next month's elections are older men who have shown willingness to co- operate with Russia: the leader of the coalition government, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, and the Prime Minister, Aslan Maskhadov. They played key roles in the talks that led to a deal to postpone a decision on Chechnya's status for five years, troop withdrawal and as yet unclear commitments over economic co-operation, notably oil.

But Mr Basayev remained mostly aloof, defiant even. "Of course it will be hard for them to work with me. I won't let them rob Chechnya. I will make sure all agreements ... are, first and foremost, in the interests of Chechens." Fighting talk, the sort that will cause many to rally to his cause. The sort also to make Russia wonder what on earth it has done.