Chechnya today is as close to a Hobbesian state as exists on earth. Grozny is a moonscape of gas fires, open sewers, and bombed-out buildings. There is almost no legitimate economy: at least seventy-five per cent of the Chechen workforce is unemployed. Criminal gangs dominate the social order. Politicians are assassinated; journalists and aid workers are abducted, even executed. The Russian Army troops who remain are corrupt, lawless, given to raping, kidnapping, and executing civilians. Whatever funds Moscow sends for rebuilding invariably end up stolen.
In recent years, especially since September 11, 2001, Putin has tried hard to paint Basayev as the equivalent of Osama bin Laden, and his men as linked closely with Al Qaeda. This is a complicated equation. Reports of Chechen rebels training with Al Qaeda in Afghanistan remain murky. There is no doubt, however, that Basayev and his followers in Chechnya have been deeply influenced by the tactics, ideology, and language of jihadists abroad. Basayev, who has a bushy beard and a clean-shaven pate, dispatches video and audio manifestos, affecting a bin Laden-like image as a holy warrior. He has taken on field commanders and advisers from Saudi Arabia. And he has cultivated a group of so-called "black widows," women willing to sacrifice themselves as hostage-takers, assassins, and suicide bombers.
Last week, in the wake of the massacre in Beslan, Putin gathered a group of Western reporters and scholars at his house outside Moscow and repudiated the idea of a negotiated settlement with the likes of Basayev. "Why don't you meet Osama bin Laden, invite him to Brussels or to the White House, engage in talks, ask him what he wants, and give it to him so he leaves you in peace?" he said. "You find it possible to set some limits on your dealings with these bastards, so why should we talk to people who are child-killers?"
Putin is an increasingly autocratic leader. He has neutered state-controlled television, compromised the rise of an independent judiciary, and impeded independent political movements and parties. L'état, c'est Putin. And yet he has no choice but to go after Basayev. The demands of the Chechen jihadists now extend beyond Chechen independence. As Basayev made plain with his incursion into the neighboring republic of Dagestan five years ago, he is interested in pure vengeance and in extending his reach throughout the northern Caucasus.
In the longer term, finding real negotiating partners will be harder than finding Basayev. "The Russian leadership constantly reiterates that it is fighting not Chechen separatists but international terrorists, and this has finally become a self-fulfilling prophecy," Andrei Piontkovsky, one of the leading political analysts in Moscow, has written. "Thanks to the methods with which we have waged this war, we have turned practically the whole population of Chechnya into enemies."
From the briefing section of the PBS presentation on Kevin Sim's documentary film Siege of School No. 1.