Saturday, April 22, 2006

The Presidents of Chechnya

A Prague Watchdog article I recently translated:
The Presidents of Chechnya

by Ruslan Isayev

For the Chechen Republic the last fifteen years have probably been among the most shattering (in their events and essence) in the recent history of the Chechen people. Over this period the Chechens have experienced (and continue to experience) very powerful upheavals the origins of which date from the moment of the disintegration of the USSR.

The most commonly-heard answer, or one of them, to the question of why blood constantly flows in this small territory is “Chechen oil”. A second version, most frequently encountered in reports of Kremlin analysts, is that Chechnya is a bridgehead for the special services of foreign governments, who aim to detach the North Caucasus from Russia, and thus destroy the Russian state.

The situation is so confused that a sense is created of war in the Caucasus being a natural state of affairs. From one angle this is indeed so.

The Caucasus has always been a source of problems for Russia, and enormous forces, both financial and human, have been deployed in the struggle with them. Meanwhile in Chechnya children have continued to be born, and their grandchildren have subsequently experienced the same things their grandfathers had to survive. And this has gone on for a period of several hundred years.

Fifteen hard years

This is now no longer a paradox, but an everyday historical fact both for Russia and for Chechnya. For the former it means “pacification”, while for the latter it is liberation. Yes, liberation, since it was under this slogan that on coming to power in 1991 Dzhokhar Dudayev was able to unite the Chechen people, which had hitherto then been locked up in itself. He gave release to an energy the slightest signs of which had for long years been suppressed both by self-censorship and by the authorities.

For a time at least, the Chechens were actually free. That time was not 1996-1999 (Chechens are reluctant to recall those years), but the beginning of the 1990s, when independence was declared. And for the Chechens the First War, in the opinion of many of those who took part in it, including even those who came over from the federal side, was really a patriotic war.

Strange and tragic times always give birth to leaders who correspond to them. And in Chechnya, each of those leaders considered and considers himself as at the very least the hero Danko, leading his people into a "bright future" which on inspection frequently proves to be very doubtful, or simply doesn’t turn out as planned.

It is not for me to judge the political leaders of Chechnya – tomorrow’s historians will do that, but the period of those leaders’ governance coincided precisely with the years when I was growing up, and I can at least offer some theories of my own as to why everyone in Chechnya wants to be President, despite the fact that this post has so far failed to bring longevity to anyone, whether in a political or a literal sense.

Dokka Zavgayev, Dzhokhar Dudayev, Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev, Aslan Maskhadov, Akhmad Kadyrov, Alu Alkhanov, and now Sadullayev – for specific periods of time, by the will of fate, and sometimes possibly against it, these men have ended up at the head of the Chechen republic. For four of them this post proved to be a death sentence.

Dudayev

Dzhokhar Dudayev was killed as a result of rocket fire from a Russian fighter plane near the Chechen foothill village of Gekhi-Chu on April 21 1996. The location of the former Soviet general, who had commanded a division of strategic bombers, was calculated as he talked on a satellite phone with Russian politician Konstantin Borovoy.

The detail that General Dudayev’s location was calculated so simply, together with the basic fact that he did not withdraw to a safe distance from the source of the phone signal, made his death a mysterious one, inflaming the minds of many fanatical supporters who believed that he was still alive.

In Grozny long afterwards rallies continued to be held at which the participants awaited his appearance. In such a soil, some people’s minds were literally "touched”. The two officer-pilots who fired the rocket at Dudayev were presented with the highest state award in the land – the title of Hero of Russia.

Dudayev’s distinguishing feature was his ability to immediately analyse a situation. Almost without ever having lived in Chechnya, in a short space of time he actually mastered the native language, and his ironic manner of speech still gives rise to false rumours in public life.

Today it is possible to confirm that the saying attributed to him – that in the course of the liberation struggle Chechnya would lose many people, and only the remaining thirty per cent would find freedom – has proved to be prophetic, apart from the attainment of independence.

Yandarbiyev

After Dudayev’s death, in accordance with the constitution of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, the post of President was taken by Vice President Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev. A well-known Chechen poet, Yandarbiyev occupied the post for less than a year, until a new President was elected.

Although Yandarbiyev did not sit in the President’s chair for long, and even then with the prefix “Acting”, he did not avoid a tragic death. His move with his family to distant Qatar at the beginning of the Second War did not save him, either. He and his teenage son were the victims of a bomb attack on his car as he returned from Friday prayers at a mosque.

Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev died, but his son survived. The Qatar authorities exposed this crime. Three members of Russian foreign intelligence were arrested, but after prolonged negotiations were sent back to Russia to serve their sentences.

Yandarbiyev is remembered by Chechens for his skirmish with Yeltsin in the Kremlin, when he refused to sit down opposite Dokka Zavgayev during the negotiations. In a TV broadcast, one of his advisers, probably trying to make himself inconspicuous in the face of the looming scandal, could be heard in the background saying to him in whispered Chechen: "Sit down, there’s nothing to worry about!.” "No, I won’t,” was the answer.

Maskhadov

On January 27 1997, Chechnya held a presidential election which many observers still call one of the most democratic in the post-Soviet space at that time. Aslan Maskhadov was elected President, beating his rival companions-in-arms Basayev, Udugov and Yandarbiyev by a large margin.

For Chechens who were tired of the war, confidence in Maskadov indicated only one thing – a hope for peace and calm. After the beginning of the second Chechen campaign, Maskhadov led the resistance from underground..

On March 8 2005, it was announced that he had been killed as a result of a special operation by Russian special services in the settlement of Tolstoy-Yurt, not far from the Chechen capital. There is a version of the story which says that Maskhadov was enticed under the pretext of planned negotiations with the Russian side and that the OSCE and the President of Poland stood as guarantors.

The version has no basis in proof, but the Polish foreign ministry did call Maskhadov’s killing an act of political stupidity and a major error, which caused a nervous reaction on the part of the Russian authorities. With Maskhadov's death, the last tenuous hope for negotiations disappeared.

Aslan Maskhadov was considered a weak President, but a brilliant soldier. Many political analysts note this even now. After becoming the President of a destroyed republic which had won a war and practically become independent, he essentially lost his fellow companions-in-arms at the most critical moment in Chechen history. However, he boldly entered it as the President who signed the peace agreement with Russia.

Kadyrov

Akhmad Kadyrov, the former mufti of Chechnya who declared a jihad against infidels in the first Chechen war, moved over to the side of his former enemies in the second. The Kremlin appointed him as head of its Chechen administration, and then within the space of two years, by means of elections too dubious to be called an expression of free will, he became President of Chechnya.

During this time he acquired his political manner and with it his charisma as leader. Akhmad Kadyrov was a supporter of the greatest possible degree of autonomy for the republic from Moscow, and of the monopoly on managing its natural resources, including oil, for its internal needs.

On May 9 2004, Kadyrov died as a result of an explosion at the central stadium during the Victory Day parade. The question of how it was possible for his attackers to bring in the explosives – an item under constant guard – and especially to brick them up directly under the platform where Kadyrov would be sitting, is one that has remained unanswered.

Kadyrov’s role has not yet been given much study. Historians will do that. But the fact remains that Kadyrov was able to change the course of events in Chechnya. Taking advantage of his wide powers within Chechnya, he was able to convince many guerrillas of the futility of resistance to Russia, thus actually saving the lives of many hundreds of former resistance soldiers.

Many will say: and what good is a life on those terms? That is another question. He was not a supporter of driving the guerrillas into a corner, but rather of giving them a final chance to preserve their lives. For a short time, Kadyrov became a political figure on a Russian scale. The fact is that he died precisely at the moment when people had begun to look to him with hope.

Who’s next?

The chain of fateful deaths of Chechen leaders has not been broken, it has merely frozen for the time being. At present there are again two presidents in Chechnya. Alu Alkhanov, who is pro-Moscow, and Abdul-Khalim Sadullayev, who is President of Ichkeria, i.e. independent Chechnya.

According to the laws, both can be considered legal, since one has been elected according to Russian legislation, and the other according to the Constitution of Ichkeria and a resolution of the State Defence Committee. Perhaps destiny will again choose between them?

The fate which pursues the leaders of Chechnya will last for as long as the Chechen war endures, a war that is mistakenly thought to be over. Here it is possible to say with certainty that Chechnya’s leaders share its destiny, the only difference being that while they depart, Chechnya remains.


Ruslan Isayev is Prague Watchdog's North Caucasus correspondent
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