`He is honest, pleasant and modest. He will be a very good leader'

The mere mention of her only son, one of tens of thousands of young men to die fighting for the freedom of Chechnya, reduces Assia Alabayeva to tears. But, as she watched history unfold from her farm house, she was also crying for another reason, writes Helen Womack.

Two hundred yards away, a small group of Chechen soldiers was gathering outside the modest home occupied by her neighbour. They were there to congratulate her mentor and hero, Aslan Maskhadov, on his new role as President of Chechnya. Although the results had yet to be officially confirmed, no one in Pervomayskoye, 12 miles west of Grozny, had much doubt that their village had become the homestead of a national leader. "He is honest, pleasant, and modest. He is a very good neighbour, and he will be a very good president," said Ms Alabayeva.

One accolade was missing, though. Both friends and opponents of Aslan Maskhadov, the former Chechen military commander, almost always call him a "compromiser", a man able to find an obshyi yazik with old enemies, the Russians, with whom Chechnya must somehow co-exist. But she did not.

Moscow, which favoured his candidacy, could go on kidding itself that the republic's new leader was flexible over the issue of Chechnya's independence from the Russian Federation, due to be settled in 2001. But there had been too much bloodshed. "There will be no compromise," Ms Alabayeva said.

Mr Maskhadov, 45, may be seen as moderate from afar, but this should not be overstated. True, he is more moderate than the other candidates for the presidency, particularly Shamil Basayev, the field commander who was runner-up. But he has more similarities with them than differences.

Russia will take reassurance from the fact that Mr Maskhadov signed the August peace deal with the Kremlin's envoy, Alexander Lebed, that ended the war. But he was also chief-of-staff in the Chechen command, and fought for nearly two years in the same tight-knit fighting force as Basayev. He was also forged in the furnace of separatist politics. A successful career in the Soviet Army took him to Georgia, Hungary and, finally, Lithuania, where he was colonel in charge of a rocket and artillery division. Like Dzhokhar Dudayev, the late president of Chechnya who served in Estonia, he was won over by the politics of independence.

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