Chechen leader Maskhadov assassinated – but nothing has been solved

On March 8th, Aslan Maskhadov was killed. There are currently conflicting reports as to how Russian forces killed the recognised leader of Chechen resistance against the Russian state. His death has been painted as a personal victory for President Putin, who was compelled to admit the weaknesses of the Russian state following the Beslan tragedy. But there is still no end in sight for the war of attrition between Chechen independence fighters and the Russian army.

On March 8th, Aslan Maskhadov was killed. There are currently conflicting reports as to how Russian forces killed the recognised leader of Chechen resistance against the Russian state, who was hiding in a quiet village near Chechen capital Grozny. Federal spokesmen have declared that previous raids in the area unearthed his whereabouts but this is more likely to be the work of the intelligence network of Ramzan Khadyrov, the first Deputy President of Chechnya and son of former President Akhmat Khadyrov. Khadyrov claimed that Maskhadov’s bodyguards shot him after he refused to surrender yet this does not fit with reports of local residents, who heard grenade explosions. It is more likely that he was killed after the house he was hiding in was stormed.

His death has been painted as a personal victory for President Putin, who was compelled to admit the weaknesses of the Russian state following the Beslan tragedy. But there is still no end in sight for the war of attrition between Chechen independence fighters and the Russian army.

On the contrary, the power vacuum will be filled by Islamic fundamentalist terrorists like Shamil Basaev, who masterminded the seizure of the school in Beslan, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of children. This point has been made by Nikolai Kovalev, a pro-Putin deputy in the Russian Duma and former head of the FSB (the renamed KGB), who has noted that “in the short term the terrorists will be activated, and we must be prepared for this.”

Federal spokesmen have presented Tuesday’s operation as a pre-emptive strike to stop in its tracks a new terrorist attack. This claim is almost certainly a smokescreen to conceal the fact that the assassination of Maskhadov was decided upon and planned well in advance by the top brass. Federal forces, through Ramzan Khadyrov’s spy network, knew more or less where Maskhadov was all the time. The question is why Russian forces acted upon this information this time.

Many commentators in Moscow see this move as a signal that the Kremlin has ruled out a political solution to the conflict. Unlike Shamil Basaev or Doku Umarov, Maskhadov was prepared to negotiate with the Kremlin if the Kremlin so wished, notably with the Khasaviurts peace deal in 1996. And after commanding Chechen units in the first war from 1994-6 and being elected President of Chechnya with 60% of the vote in 1997, Maskhadov turned out to be far from a belligerent leader, so much so that he lost control of his Islamic fundamentalist ministers, who succeeded in introducing sharia law in 1999 under his Presidency.

With the shift in Russian policy towards Chechnya that coincided with the coming to power of President Putin and the second Chechen war, Maskhadov, though nominally Chechen leader, had no more control militarily than other field commanders. Vadim Dubnov, a specialist in the Chechen conflict from the weekly journal “Hashe Vremya” in an article in “Izvestiya” yesterday compared Maskhadov’s role in Chechnya to Shin Fein, the political wing of the Irish Republican movement. He used his legitimacy as an elected Chechen leader to provide political backing for the war against Russia in the US and Europe, rather than actually participate in military operations himself. Only last month Maskhadov called a temporary truce, underlining that he presented himself as a moderate leader who wanted peace.

The nature of the stalemate

The nightmare in Chechnya will continue. It is the product of the failure both of the Kremlin’s policies and the failure of Chechen leaders like Maskhadov, not to mention terrorists like Basaev. Of course Marxists defend the right of the Chechen people to decide for themselves whether to be part of Russia or not, and to use force in self-defence against the Russian state, which has invaded Chechnya and bullies its people. The responsibility for the impasse lies squarely at the feet of Russian imperialism. But we condemn terrorism of any sort, which only serves to strengthen imperialism.

Putin’s cronies boldly declare that Basaev and co. will be killed next, but if they wanted to they could already have assassinated them, just as they have Maskhadov. In fact federal personnel in the army and police often pay rebel commanders not to kill them and then strike out against peaceful, defenceless civilians in order to pretend that they are fighting a war. These terrorists will never defeat Russian imperialism militarily, just as they will never defend the people they claim to represent from the tyranny of Russian occupation. The truth is that it suits the Kremlin to have Islamic fundamentalist enemies – such an enemy justifies their own violence and repression in Chechnya, as well as providing a pretext to tighten their grip on power in Russia as a whole. And it suits the terrorists to have an enemy like the present Russian leadership, whose dictatorial approach to questions of war and peace is Basaev’s key asset.

Maskhadov’s manoeuvring between terrorists and foreign governments, and his willingness to come to a deal with the Kremlin no longer suited either his apparent hard-line allies or the Kremlin. In Chechnya itself he was increasingly a peripheral figure, unable to control anti-Russian units. Now the initiative will pass further towards terrorists. Russian diplomatic strategists predict that without the cover of Maskhdov’s image in the west financial backing for the war will dry up. But this is neither here nor there. Rebel groups have their own criminal sources of income in Chechnya. And their terrorist activities are not expensive, and have an impact out of all proportion to what they cost the terrorists in money and lives.

No end in sight

Temporary lulls in the fighting on the Chechen side may be possible but a long-term, sustainable peace is out of the question. Field commanders who have changed sides and collaborate with the pro-Russian administration confidently predict that the new generation of Chechens that is growing up amid the scars of this war will pick up the struggle in the future.

The impasse that Chechnya is in now can descend further into chaos though. Apart from the terrorists and the Kremlin, the war also bolsters the power of the pro-Kremlin Chechen leadership, divided between President Alu Alkhanov and Ramzan Khadyrov. These politicians are exploiting the presence of terrorists on the territory of Chechnya to gain extra concessions from Moscow. In January they presented a document outlining an agreement regulating the relationship between Moscow and Grozny, with the following points:

  • Exemption from federal taxes for 10 years
  • The right to administer its natural resources
  • To register companies (who could use the tax law above to turn Chechnya into an internal offshore zone)
  • To open economic ministries in other countries
  • Compensation for the victims of Stalin’s repressions
  • An extra 3bn roubles on top of the funds directed to re-building the Republic
  • Limitations of the powers of federal security structures in Chechnya.

These demands correspond to the appetite of former President Akhmat Khadyrov who fought against Russia in the first Chechen war and then decided that he could get a better deal (to defend his own rather than his nation’s interests) by being loyal to Putin, even if in form only. What we see is that now even Alu Alkhanov, who does not have an independent base like Khadyrov did and is the Kremlin’s stooge, is demanding just as much, if not more, than his predecessor.

This is not in the interests of the Kremlin but it does not have an independent base in the Republic. In other words the likes of Ramzan Khadyrov and his private army of 5000 soldiers have carte blanche to do whatever they want. This winter Ramzan Khadyrov took 150 of his men to neighbouring Dagestan and released his sister Zulai from being held in a police station. The reaction of the state council of Dagestan was to express concern about the situation on its boarder with Chechnya, “which has arisen in connection with the illegal actions of security personnel of the Chechen Republic.” In December the inhabitants of Khasaviurts blocked the main federal highway in protest against raids by Chechen policemen into their neighbourhood and the arrest of locals. The Kremlin therefore relies on Khadyrov for support but cannot control him. On the one hand they awarded him with title of ‘Hero of Russia’ at the end of last year, but on the other hand they have decided to set up an alternative security force for Alu Alkhanov that will consist of soldiers from Russia, as a counter-weight to Khadyrov’s.

It is clear that such political leadership in Russia and Chechnya will not bring peace but will make peace impossible. It provokes opposition within Chechnya, which does not have a framework to intervene in the political process outside of taking up arms. And if such a cynical approach yields dividends from the Kremlin then neighbouring republics will see that having armed terrorists on their territory will increase their room for manoeuvre vis-à-vis the Kremlin as well.

And of course the war in Chechnya is the excuse for terrorist atrocities in other cities, such as Kislovodsk and Moscow, as well as Beslan, North Ossetia. On Tuesday, international women’s day, a delegation of mothers whose children were killed in September spoke at a meeting in Vladikavkaz, the North Ossetian capital. One of the women, Marina Pak, made the same point as this article does when she said “terrorists and the (North Ossetian) Republic’s leadership are united by their main feature – their contempt for people.” Six months on it transpires that rumours of bloodshed between Ossetians and Ingush people were fanned by the administration to create fear and rally people round North Ossetian President Dzasokhov. And it turns out that the public officials sacked by Putin in September have been given plum jobs in Moscow. When this was announced at the meeting the crowd was stunned. “Why were we not told this?” they wanted to know. And then local journalists explained they were forbidden from reporting these appointments.

Neither terrorism or false hopes in US or European imperialism will solve the myriad of problems that have been created and are still being created in the Caucasus. Only the unity of the working class can offer a way out. For only the working class in the region, as well as in Russia, has a common interest in kicking out of power the rotten and corrupt leaders that trample on our rights and drive us into poverty wherever we are.

Apart from the assassination of Maskhadov and international women’s day this year’s 8th of March can be remembered as the day when the price of oil hit its historical maximum at $53.48. Not only could the Russian government even today afford with its plentiful harvest of oil exports to go on a charm offensive and reconstruct Chechnya from its current ruins, undermining in the process the base of terrorists who have brought only suffering, but the oil rich Republic itself could prosper. It is a crushing indictment of capitalism and the reactionary consequences of the war that the level of oil extraction in Chechnya per year today is less than it was in 1917, when it stood at 1.77m tonnes and many times less than the level of over 20 tonnes of the 1970s (Kommersant Vlast, 6/09/2004). There are no material or technological reasons for Chechnya to be stuck in the dark ages, neither is the isolation the war has brought in the interest of the people in Chechnya, the Caucasus as a whole or Russia. Only the unity of the workers and a new nationalised economy under the democratic control of the workers, guaranteeing the national rights of every nation, can realise the economic and cultural potential of the region that we had a glimpse of in the best days of the Soviet Union.