Making a Martyr

6 minute read

In life, warriors are judged by their prowess on the battlefield; in death, by the manner of their dying. When Russian special forces cornered Chechen separatist leader Aslan Maskhadov in a basement in the village of Tolstoy Yurt, Chechnya, last week, they offered him the chance to surrender. When he refused, the Russians say, they blasted the concrete bunker in which he was hiding, killing him in the process.

That final gesture of defiance has transformed Maskhadov’s reputation. For years, many former comrades disdained him as a weak political leader who, after a victorious war of secession against Russia in the mid-1990s, allowed thugs and religious fanatics to take over Chechnya. Radical guerrillas scorned him for his desire to negotiate with the Russians. Many ordinary Chechens reviled him as the cause of their misery. Now, Maskhadov has become a martyr for Islam and his beleaguered nation, and his death could lead to a further escalation of the brutal war with Russia.

No one in Chechnya dared openly mark Maskhadov’s death; at least eight of his relatives disappeared last December, according to local and national press reports, in an apparent effort by the pro-Russian Chechen administration to force his surrender. But there are signs of a groundswell of support for the only Chechen President whose election was recognized as legitimate by the international community. “He did not run and he did not surrender, like the Imam Shamil,” says one Chechen who fought alongside Maskhadov in the mid-1990s, recalling the legendary 19th century Chechen guerrilla who lived comfortably in Russian exile. “He was a difficult man, hard to read and closed. But we have forgiven him.”

Kavkaz Chat, a website funded by radical Islamists, had little time for Maskhadov when he was alive. Within hours of his death, however, it was deluged with hundreds of messages hailing him as a national hero and shahid, or martyr, for Islam. Radical guerrilla leaders added a twist to the message. Maskhadov’s death, their chief propagandist, Movladi Udugov, declared, marks a “new period” in the war with Russia. There will be no negotiations or temporary halts in fighting, he said, vowing the war will end “only when the regime that generates and nourishes aggression against the Chechen state and Muslims of the Caucasus is finally annihilated.”

As the Soviet Union began to crumble in the early 1990s, Maskhadov, an artillery colonel, returned to Chechnya to mastermind the military strategy for its 1994-96 revolt against Russia. Elected Chechen President by a landslide in 1997, he quickly lost support for failing to stop the republic’s descent into anarchy. After late 1999, when Russian forces reinvaded Chechnya and overthrew his secessionist government, Maskhadov became a fugitive, constantly on the move and relying largely on couriers for his communications. Three or four bodyguards usually accompanied him, while mobile security teams — most recently, about 15 men posing as pro-Russian strongman Ramzan Kadyrov’s police — stayed within radio range if needed.

Chechen sources who track the war closely tell Time that Maskhadov, 53, last contacted senior guerrilla officers near Shali, a small town 26 km southeast of Grozny, on Feb. 21. Around that time, he was hiding in a village in the high, densely forested hills of the Nozhai Yurt district, another 40 km to the east. As so often in the past, he was living under his enemy’s nose. The village was nominally under the control of pro-Russian Chechen forces; Tsentoroy, Kadyrov’s home base, is only around 20 km away. Maskhadov was planning to move on toward Achkhoy Martan in western Chechnya.

When his security detail failed to make contact, the guerrillas started calling down the chain of Maskhadov’s liaison agents. Using some of his many nicknames — including one, Big Ears, that he disliked intensely — they asked if anyone had sighted Maskhadov. Nobody had, but this didn’t cause major alarm. Rumors had been flying among the guerrillas that some sort of secret negotiations with Moscow were about to take place, and they assumed he had slipped away for something connected to that. Earlier this month, though, they learned that the Russians had captured one of Maskhadov’s liaison agents in Nozhai Yurt. Chechens say they believe the man had been tortured (a practice human-rights groups say is common on both sides) into revealing Maskhadov’s whereabouts.

The Russians say they tracked down Maskhadov on March 8 in Tolstoy Yurt, 16 km north of the capital, Grozny. It was a typically counterintuitive choice of hideout. Tolstoy Yurt has a long history of opposition to secessionist leaders, and to get there Maskhadov would have needed to pass through several major Russian military checkpoints. It was there, in a house in in the village center that the Russians say they found him, hiding out in a bunker equipped with a bed, heating and not much else.

During the conflict with Russia, an increasingly isolated Maskhadov had seen many of his closest allies either die or give up. He occasionally met with radical guerrilla leader Shamil Basayev, the man behind terrorist atrocities like the Moscow theater siege in October 2002 and the Beslan school massacre last September. But Maskhadov rejected Basayev’s terror tactics, and Basayev despised Maskhadov’s calls for peace talks. Last week, the Chechen resistance quickly announced a new president, Abdul Khalim Saydulayev, the head of the Shariat, or Islamic court. In his mid-30s, Saydulayev is virtually unknown. Moscow and pro-Russian Chechens dismiss him as a Basayev puppet.

Some Kremlin officials now predict the slow death of the guerrilla movement. A few veterans in the hills may well decide to make their peace with the authorities. But with Maskhadov gone, Basayev could become even more influential. And the war is increasingly being waged not by fighters in forests, but by jamaat — small mobile groups loyal to Basayev, often living legally in cities and villages. Rebels like these carried out the Moscow theater raid and the Beslan school seizure. And last month Basayev warned that he was planning more “Beslan-type” operations. For men like this, Maskhadov’s death is a double gift. It provides the resistance with a new national hero, and it removes the one man who tried to prevent them from waging all-out war on Russia and its people.

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