Chechen leader despairs, but vows to fight on

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The Independent Online

ASLAN MASKHADOV, President of Chechnya, despairs at the stupidity of it. He says he has repeatedly tried to contact Russia's leadership to stop the latest war in Chechnya, without success. He believes the war has started again, three years after his forces defeated Russia, because of "the power struggle in Moscow to succeed Boris Yeltsin".

ASLAN MASKHADOV, President of Chechnya, despairs at the stupidity of it. He says he has repeatedly tried to contact Russia's leadership to stop the latest war in Chechnya, without success. He believes the war has started again, three years after his forces defeated Russia, because of "the power struggle in Moscow to succeed Boris Yeltsin".

Mr Maskhadov, a trim man in military uniform with a dark beard and grey hair, sits in his office overlooking the ruins of Grozny, the Chechen capital, which his men recaptured in 1996. He recalls how a Russian politician told him then: "We cannot beat you now, but in five years we will fight you again."

In fact the war resumed earlier than that. Shamil Basayev, a Chechen warlord, invaded neighbouring Dagestan. Then two huge bombs, blamed on the Chechens, killed 300 people in Russia. Vladimir Putin, the new Prime Minister in Moscow, has seen his popularity at home rise with every mile the Russian army advances into Chechnya.

Much of what happens now depends on Mr Maskhadov. He says he does not want to fight, but has little doubt he will have to. "I tried to persuade the Russians it was stupid to fight. But Putin has to show himself a defender against terrorism." He says only when Chechen forces inflict heavy casualties on the Russian army will "the Russian generals sober up".

There is no sign of this yet. The Russian army is today expected to cross the Terek river, 15 miles north of Grozny. The stage is set for an advance on the capital, the scene of savage fighting in the last war. Mr Maskhadov says his "major forces should be kept for fighting in the city and the mountains", but he will do as much damage as he can on the plains.

Even the Russians admit that Mr Maskhadov is a good general. He was chief of staff of the Chechen forces that slaughtered the Russian armoured columns advancing into Grozny in 1994. The city finally fell, but his troops recaptured it two years later.

It is not surprising the Chechen leader knows the Russian army so well ­ much of his career was spent in it. Born in 1951 in Kazakhstan, to where his parents had been deported by Stalin in 1944, he joined the Soviet army at the age of 18. When the Soviet Union broke up he had risen to colonel.

He is still very much a traditional military officer. Softly spoken, formal, his manner is in sharp contrast to the leaders of the ill-disciplined militias that are the mainstay of Chechen strength. For Mr Maskhadov, without a regular army, military strategy means negotiations with the Chechen warlords.

It is not a role he enjoys. When I asked him about relations with Shamil Basayev, the most powerful warlord, he responded sharply: "Who is this Basayev? He should obey orders. He is an ex-commander of the central front [in the last war]. I have said all commanders should come to me."

Probably the impact of the Russian attack will reunify the Chechen leaders, but three years of relative peace have left scars. Mr Maskhadov won his office in a fair election in 1997 with 59 per cent of the vote, but his power and resources were limited. Chechnya became infamous for banditry and kidnappings. The only large building reconstructed in Grozny is Mr Maskhadov's own office.

Anarchy and economic misery have affected ordinary Chechens. Asked what he thought of Mr Maskhadov, a villager said he did not think much of him as "he should have tried to arrest those kidnappers; they should all be shot".

But the Chechen leader has no doubt his people will fight, largely because they have no option. What little infrastructure remained after 1996 is being hit by Russian bombers. He says: "The oil refineries and 60 to 70 per cent of bridges have been destroyed."

There is no doubting President Maskhadov's quiet resolution to fight on. Behind him hangs the emblem of a wolf, recalling the legend that in a storm all Chechnya's animals were blown away except the wolf, who stood his ground even when the wind blew off its skin.

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