Alexander Zemlianichenko  /  AP file
The Chechen rebel leader Aslan Maskhadov, who was killed earlier this week.
By Producer
NBC News
updated 3/11/2005 2:45:38 PM ET 2005-03-11T19:45:38

The killing of Aslan Maskhadov, the rebel leader and former president of the breakaway republic of Chechnya, was hailed by the Kremlin as a near deadly blow to the rebels.

But, his death earlier this week has also been criticized by human rights organizations and by political analysts here, who say it could lead to an escalation of violence in Russia.

The contradictory predictions reflect a split in Russian society between those who support President Vladimir Putin's hard-line policy in the breakaway province, and those who maintain that only peaceful negotiations can bring an end to the bloody conflict that has spanned more than a decade.

Hard-liners see death as blow to rebels
To many hard-liners, death is strongly believed to be a positive sign for the future.

"The elimination of a terrorist of international standing only means that there will be much less evil now," said parliamentary speaker Boris Gryzlov, a leading member of the pro-Kremlin political party Unity, on national television.

Gryzlov and his supporters believe the death will weaken the Chechen resistance.

Aslambek Aslakhanov, an advisor to Putin on Chechen policy, told a press conference in Moscow that the remaining rebel leaders would "now enter a fray to take Maskhadov's place," but that none would be able to match the former leader's ability to attract foreign political and financial support.

Likewise, Parliamentary security committee deputy head Mikhail Grishankov called Maskhadov's death "a very serious moral, psychological and political blow ... the terrorists have no one to replace Maskhadov."

Best hope gone
But, there is also a fear that the lack of leadership will create a power vacuum. Many believe that Maskhadov was the only representative of the Chechen resistance who had the authority and the desire to enter into negotiations with the Russians.

Only last week, Maskhadov told Radio Free Europe, "a 30-minute face to face dialogue [with Putin] should be enough to stop this war."

Following the tragic hostage-taking of the school in Beslan in August 2004 by Chechen rebels in which 330 children and adults died, a renewed effort to begin negotiations was initiated by the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers, a human rights organization.

Valentina Melnikova, head of the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers, recently met with Maskhadov's representative in London. "Without him, the smallest hope of a negotiated end to the conflict is gone," Melnikova said.

"The departure of Maskhadov from the political scene, such a fatal, permanent departure, removes the possibility of any kind of negotiations or even contacts," said Alexei Malashenko, an expert on the Caucasus at the Moscow Carnegie Center. "Maskhadov was the legally elected president, and despite the fact that his popularity at present had fallen compared to his popularity when he was elected, he was still a symbol for many Chechens."

Basayev other option
Furthermore, many analysts predict that Maskhadov's death will cause an escalation of violence by the more radical Islamic faction of Chechen separatists, led by Shamil Basayev.

Basayev, a notorious field commander, personally took credit for orchestrating the worst terrorist attacks in Russia's recent history: the Beslan hostage-taking, the 2002 Moscow theater siege in which 130hostagesdied, and several apartment bombings in Moscow and other cities in 1999 which killed over 200.

The Kremlin under Putin has claimed that Maskhadov was just as much a terrorist as Basayev, accusing him of a double act: Maskhadov tacitly supported Basayev's attacks on civilians but condemned them publicly in order to distance himself from terrorism, maintain the image of a moderate, and keep the support of concerned parties in Europe and the U.S.

The Kremlin viewed his overtures toward peace in the same light, as insincere ploys to create an image. Putin has steadfastly refused to even consider negotiations with Maskhadov and the Kremlin has long sought to marginalize him.

Many observers think this is because Maskhadov's image as a moderate got in the way of Putin's attempt to characterize the Chechen resistance as part of international Islamist terror.

Further radicalism clear bet
Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist who travels frequently to Chechnya and whose rare bold reporting on the war has brought her into disfavor with the Kremlin, maintains that Maskhadov was genuinely a moderate and his death will tip the balance now toward the more radical Basayev.

"It will undoubtedly escalate the conflict because there were two centers in the Chechen resistance," she said. "One was Maskhadov, the other Basayev. I think that Basayev knows how to fight and he is now alone with his center."

Malashenko from the Moscow Carnegie Center believes that a "gradual radicalization of the separatists will result, that's the first thing that can be predicted.

"Secondly, we can expect a reaction from Basayev, because he is the kind of person who takes revenge, and is quite good at taking revenge, very cruel revenge. So right now, the Russian special services and the Russian political establishment should be maximally prepared for unexpected events."

In the meantime, good for the Kremlin
Whatever Maskhadov's death brings for Russia, it certainly has brought Putin a much-needed boost. 

Putin's rating and authority in society have fallen sharply in the last half year for the first time in his two-term presidency. The fall has been partly due to the horrific events in Beslan, as well as problems with social reforms at home and foreign policy blunders abroad in Ukraine and Georgia, where the Kremlin backed the losing candidate in popular elections. Some in his elite circle have reportedly lost confidence in him.

"Putin needed a strong effective move to show that he is still, as before, a strong person able to take the most decisive measures. And this was accomplished with Maskhadov's death," according to Malashenko,

While Putin has certainly come out ahead, he has gained nothing in terms of strategy Malashenko added.

"He increased his authority, he showed that his special forces are capable of such actions, he made negotiations a mute point. But this is the 4th president of Chechnya that has been killed. The war continues and it looks like it can't be won by only military means. And now it will become even more cruel," Malashenko said.

Judy Augsburger is an NBC News producer based in Moscow.


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